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Manuel de Layet [Celluloid 06.02.15] Portugal drama fantasy adventure

If there is one particular thing to Miguel Gomes' tableau on the economic crisis in Portugal, it's the distinct beauty that clings to the utmost despair. Spanning six-hours, divided into three distinct features, this "real-life fairy tale" goes from laughter to sadness in a rather implacable fashion.

You're surely aware of the concept, christened by Pauwells and Bergier in the sixties as “réalisme fantastique”, on how to anchor fantasy in sufficiently real-looking setting in order to help and promote suspension of disbelief. This has made it's way into most production design nowadays with buff marks and traces of wear and tear on virtual objects being the most mundane expression of it. What we have here is the reverse.

The general idea behind Arabian Nights was to use the narrative structure of the eponymous folktales to cover real life news. Everything on screen, however ludicrous it might seems, has it's origin in our world. Why this hasn't been done before is beyond me, as the results are beyond glorious.

The first opus, "The Restless One", tells the humble beginnings of the crisis. Opening as a reality-TV documentary, we follow a film crew as they work on naval yards closing, tied less classically with a parasitic wasp infestation, as if the two were linked somehow. The crumbling of the economy is echoed by nature’s upheaval against man. From there the director, undergoing a serious nervous break down, changes the tone and convinces his crew not to abandon the project by telling folk tales. From here, the real movie begins.

The obvious idea behind this introduction is to set up the concept of Fantasy as a shield against harsh realities in a way that is understandable by everyone. The three tales depicted have a wide focus ranging from the mighty and powerful, to the disfranchised showing how the crisis impacts everyone - however differently – in its course. Despite the rather bleak subject at hand this first picture manages to be rather uplifting due to its sheer quirkiness and inventive setting. High grade bankers and officials being hoodoo-ed into setting up the crisis to solve their erectile dysfunction problems, poultry being put on trial for being, well, poultry, a social worker struggles to organize a modest event. All these snapshots transcended by a faux-arabian setting with mystical creatures and a profound love for the real beings behind the tales makes up for an exhilarating experience.

All the more effective is then the second part, aptly titled “The Desolate One”. Murders, crimes and suicide are the three tales. Not that there isn't humor, but it's mostly shown as the polite side of despair. The consequences of the austerity policies are shown through the most vulnerable populations. The most harrowing tale is about a judge. Trying as best she can to actually help people, she'll end up crushed by the sheer weight of their pettiness and unfathomable stupidity. As the director said, "there's only one character not affected by everything in motion, and only because he can't give a shit. It's a dog." Watching this movie will definitely dampen whatever outlook you have on life.

After witnessing the fall of a nation, "The Enchanted One" brings about hope in a brilliant portraiture of mankind's resilience when it comes to whatever hardships might be thrown at it. There is way less fantasy in this one, since the world is getting better and the shield is not needed anymore. We'll follow the daily lives of a small community of bird lovers. From capture to singing contests, through the painstakingly long and unpredictable training process. As a species we truly are unique. There is no activity, however small or obscure, that doesn't have it's whole corpus of lore, traditions, and whatnot. I learned more about birds during the two hours than I would ever have thought possible.

This last part might be about hope in the face of adversity, there's also something way darker lurking behind it all. Since I’m the kind of gloomy fellow who cannot look at stars without thinking about their beauty being the memory of long dead worlds, I couldn't see the chaffinch enthusiasts, however caring they are for their birds, in any other way than gaining their escape from the world by locking away innocent creatures. This whole 'do unto others as you are done unto'.

But, that's just me being me. The whole is a tremendous achievement that I can't recommend enough.

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