Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1974
Starring: Franco Merli, Ines Pellegrini, Ninetto Davoli, Franco Citti
Pasolini’s adaptation of the anonymous collection One Thousand and One Nights foregoes the popular framing story — Scheherazade telling her new husband the king story after story so that he doesn’t kill her — in favor of some of the more obscure stories about young lovers, murder, loss, and much more. As a framing story, Pasolini selected that of Zumurrud, a headstrong, beautiful young slave who choses her new owner, Nur Ed Din, a handsome young man. They fall in love, but are soon parted when Zumurrud is kidnapped. She escapes and finds her way to a far off kingdom, where they mistake her for a man and, thanks to a prophecy, crown her king. She is determined to use her new power to reunite with her lost love.
While it’s easy to see the Trilogy of Life as a ribald celebration of humanity and sexuality — and that’s certainly what I remembered it to be — it actually marks a somewhat obvious progression towards Pasolini’s notorious final film, Salò. While The Decameron is lighthearted and whimsical, it doesn’t shy away from humanity’s weaknesses, which it exposes without judgment. But The Canterbury Tales is steeped with images of death, torment, and the inherent faithless and unpredictable nature of romantic relationships. Arabian Nights, the actual title of of which translates to “The Flower of the Thousand and One Nights,” is the grimmest and most defeated of the three, though it is still spectacularly beautiful and full of the depictions of nudity and sexuality that marks the trilogy as a whole.
Arabian Nights, the slogan of which is “Truth lies not in one dream but in many,” is essentially an anthology of tales all about jealous and/or heartbroken lovers who are mourning the loss of their love objects. This is the only film of the trilogy in which Pasolini did not appear, but it is arguably his most autobiographical of the three. The story of Aziz and Aziza is particularly heart-rending. One of Pasolini’s regular actors, the sunny Ninetto Davoli, plays Aziz, who on the eve of his wedding to Aziza, falls in love with another woman. Though heartbroken, Aziza stands by him and gives him advice on how to woo the new young woman. When he eventually wins over the new love, Aziza kills herself. His new partner declares that he must build a marble temple to Aziza, but when he goes on a quest to make that happen, he falls in love with a third woman. He is eventually castrated for his troubles.
In a story that somewhat mirrors that of Aziz, Davoli, who met Pasolini when he was just a teenager, was the great love of the director’s life and the two lived together as a couple (and then as platonic companions) for many years. But in the early ‘70s, Davoli met the woman who would soon become his wife. Though he remained Pasolini’s close companion until his death, it is impossible to ignore this subtext of heartbreak and betrayal. I’ve never read any interview with Davoli that specifically address this role in terms of his relationship with Pasolini, but it must have been painful for actor and director alike.
The stories are far less humorous than the first two films of the series and the majority of the film’s characters have at least one scene where they shed tears and the violence is more extensive than in the rest of the trilogy. For example, Aziz is castrated and in another tale, Pasolini regulars Franco Citti stars as an improbably red-haired demon (with giant earrings) who hacks a female lover to pieces and then transports her boyfriend through the air and turns him into a chimpanzee. In another tale, a young man swims out of the sea and comforts a frighten child. The two quickly bond and frequently embrace, but then he stabs the boy in the back in the night, killing the child as he was prophesied to do.
Despite this, there are some whimsical elements and some humor. Thanks to Walerian Borowczyk’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne, I’m a little obsessed with cult films that feature use of a bow and arrow. Arabian Nights has not one, but two instances of someone shooting a golden bow and arrow. The first time, in the Aziz segment, is a real doozie where Aziz symbolically shoots a golden, penis-shaped arrow (!) into the woman he has fallen in love with as a symbol for their first sexual encounter.
The film is especially worth watching because it is one of the most beautiful in Pasolini’s output — though that’s not saying much, as most of them are visually spectacular — and Ennio Morricone yet again provided another wonderful score. Pasolini removed Arabian Nights from the Western studio set interpretations of Middle Eastern life so familiar to anyone who has seen either version of The Thief of Baghdad or even Disney’s animated Aladdin. Instead, he set the film in the villages, palaces, ancient temples, and deserts of the Middle East itself — a vision that spans three continents. Based everywhere from Iran and Yemen to India, Nepal, and Ethiopia, the extras are real-life locals, as was Pasolini’s custom, and the film represents an impressive breadth of landscape. For anyone who thinks that A Thousand and One Nights, the source material, is solely Arabian, it’s actually a collection of medieval stories from the Middle East and Asia, which I think Pasolini is alone in representing cinematically.
Of course Arabian Nights comes highly recommended, particularly the Criterion box set, which is one of their best recent releases. This is Pasolini at his most tender, romantic, and melancholic, and it’s particularly hurtful to know that this would be his second to last film before his death.