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Arabian Nights (Pier Palo Pasolini) 1974


    Arabian Nights, the third film in Pier Palo Pasoliniís ďtrilogy of life,Ē (following The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales) feels as if itís intoxicated by the possibilities of storytelling. This anthological filmís multiple narratives collapse upon each other turning into a labyrinthine tangle that few films, outside of The Saragossa Manuscript, manage to match. Stories unfold from within other stories, and everyone seems equally likely to begin narrating another tale and sending the film off on another tangent. They flow into each other instead of being separated cleanly. The Arabian Nightsí roots as oral anecdotes are acknowledged by this plot structure, and the movie feels wildly random and spontaneous as a result. Despite the relative simplicity of the tales that are being told, the movie feels as if it takes place in a world filled with complexities. Perhaps, that exhilarating confusion arises for Western viewers because the film casts them into a fictionalized world where traditional rules of Western narrative donít apply. Women are active participants in the story instead of passive set decoration. Chance plays more of a role here in determining a characterís fate than temperament does. As a result, the tales donít really end in tragedy or comedy so much as in an undeniable acknowledgement of an unseen hand that guides the events in our lives.


    We donít ever see Scheherazade, Aladdin, or Sinbad during Pasoliniís adaptation of these classic stories, but the tales that he does opt to adapt (picked from a group numbering over 400) tell us more about the themes of the source material than most previous attempts to transfer them to film have. Itís a widely held misconception that the bulk of the Arabian Nights stories were aimed at children, but Pasoliniís film does much to debunk that perception. Many of the tales are sexually charged, and the majority of them feature characters that engage in intercourse as flippantly, and nearly as graphically, as actors in a porno movie. Pasolini presents these sex scenes with total candidness, however, so they never feel exploitative or embarrassing. The combination of this sexual frankness and tales about subjects that might seem outwardly puerile (there are stories about a vengeful demon, a bandit queen, and a slave who becomes king, to name a few) creates a happy medium in which the sex seems more innocent than it is, and these ďchildrenís storiesĒ are suddenly made worthy of adult consideration. Pasoliniís Arabian Nights succeeds mostly because it never assumes neither frank carnality nor flights of fancy are beneath us.


* * * 1/2 


Jeremy Heilman