The Secret Life of Arabia

Il fiore della mille e una notte (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1974)

I’ve never felt that I altogether got Pasolini. The Gospel According To St. Matthew passed me by rather; Salo I found very good indeed (if a bit unfair on the old Duce), partly because of its stylised manner and partly because the original text was probably closer to my wavelength.

An Italian friend tells me that the Italians are at base a peasant nation; that the intellectual wing of Italian cinema -Antonioni, Fellini- are really just trying to pass themselves off as French and earthier directors like Pasolini are the real deal. Watching this film actually put me in mind of Herzog; choosing amateur locals over professional actors, showing little interest in a plotty plot or flashy camera tricks, instead choosing to create a space and an atmosphere that takes you out of Europe and shows you a different environment, a different culture, a different way of thinking.

His take on the Arabian Nights is, of course, his own; there’s no Sinbad, no Open Sesame, and no Scheherazade either. I count six stories; a main framing narrative, and one story each side of three tales-within-tales, of which the main one is the best. They are enigmatic. They deal with young love/lust, the women have a much higher level of understanding than the men, and they try to direct the men but the men mess things up anyway. Often the women sacrifice themselves for their hapless lovers. There are prophecies, fulfilled despite themselves, and much talk of destiny.

If the stories are not to one’s liking, the location footage could not fail to be. The action primarily centres around the desert, and walled desert citadels in Iran; but there are trips to Ethiopia, Somalia, and Nepal. Just seeing the camera take in the buildings, artwork, people, costumes and food is a feast of Orientalism- all are astonishing, you feel as if you’ve been there. Desert processions raise wispy clouds of sand, swarms of rowdy little boys follow our protagonists through the streets of their towns.

The use of amateurs, their perpetual giggles and their stilted delivery of lines has a further distancing effect, makes it feel slightly like watching a puppet show. It feels improvised. Many scenes call for supsension of disbelief and enhance the fairytale feel; a pretty girl with a girl’s voice is mistaken for a man by the hundreds of people who meet her, and a dude with dyed red hair and stripey gold/black bell-bottoms passes for a demon when he looks more like a glam rock wrestler. Pasolini just gets away with it because it’s delivered with an utterly straight face.

There is plenty of nudity (especially male) and the sex scenes are puzzling. People couple off in a very casual, up-front manner and it looks much more real than it usually does in films (no saxophones, glossy photography or ecstatic moans) yet the act itself is totally stilted and awkward- flat missionary with the boy flapping like a fish and no-one seeming to enjoy themselves very much.

In place of Scheherazade, the main story is that of an East African girl, Zumurrud and her lover Nuredin, an Arab boy. Zumurrud is a bit of a stunner and twice she gets kidnapped due to the neglience of Nuredin. She’s also cunning and resourceful, and escapes both times. After her second escape, she is the first person to ride into a particular city whose king has just died without an heir. Therefore she is made king, and given a golden beard to go with her crown. Nuredin wanders the land sobbing, looking for her, and being seduced by countless girls (usually three at a time). These Islamic fellas have not always been as puritancial as they like to let on. The pair are reunited at the very end.

A story in an Ethiopian village has a boy and a girl drugged asleep by two adults. The adults stand over them, smiling, and wake the boy who has sex with the comatose girl. When he sleeps they wake the girl, who does likewise; their bet is a draw. There’s a poet who brings home three eager boys for sex. It’s quite Gauguin. Camels, stone huts, embroidered umbrellas.

As well as the sex there’s punitive violence, delivered in an equally matter-of-fact way. When she is king, Zumurrud has her two captors crucified. We see just a couple of seconds’ footage each time, of a man on a cross outside the city walls. We see a sleepwalking man stab the young boy he’s vowed to protect, in fairly homoerotic fashion. We see a castration, and the aforementioned demon chops off the hands, feet and head of his prisoner/ girlfriend when she encounters another man.

The Nepalese scenes (which I mistook for China at the time) come along when the demon turns his love rival into a monkey, who is adopted by some African pirate lads. The local king reads the monkey’s writing; bowled over by this wisdom, he wants to make the author his Vizier. The monkey is carried through the town in a sedan chair, at the centre of a fabulous procession. All the villagers are ringing chime bells, including two chickens and a naked toddler.

The most effective (and well-acted) story is that of Aziz and Aziza; on what was to be the wedding day of these two cousins, Aziz falls in love with a girl he sees at an upper-floor window. Concealing her hurt, Aziza interprets the girl’s hand-signals for Aziz and guides him on how to go about courting the girl.

After Aziz sleeps with the girl each night, they have a proverb-like dialogue and each morning Aziz runs back to Aziza, asking how he should respond to last night’s line. It’s like Cyrano, Aziza and the girl talking to each other through the dim-witted boy. Aziz is a pig who never stops to consider his cousin’s broken heart and is quite indifferent when she kills herself. It isn’t until much later that he appreciates what he’s lost.

Some stories, it must be said, are better than others. The flow of the stories is quite elusive; they overlap, it’s difficult to keep track of which story you’re in and I’m not sure how much you would gain by doing so.  A key line is that “one dream does not ever tell the whole truth. The truth is many dreams”. My impression is that Arabian Nights is a collage and a mood piece. You’re better off sitting back and going with the flow, letting the vivid images and landscapes wash over you.

If there’s a unified message coming from the actual stories it evaded me, nonetheless I was very happy for Signore Pasolini to show me all those places and people, and remind us that there’s so much more to this world than three-piece suits, drawing rooms, and other Western trappings. For me, the content was to be found in what was around the stories.


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September 2009
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