Arabian Nights Review
The celebrations of life, death and sexuality as it pertains to the common man in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s ‘Trilogy of Life’ could be seen to reach its apotheosis in the final film of the trilogy, Arabian Nights (1974). True, the magnificent surroundings of the film’s location shooting in Iran, Yemen, Ethiopia and Nepal present a more obviously attractive and meaningful historical context for the back-to-the-source exploration of the essential life-force that drives all humans than the dark, grim medieval and Middle-Ages settings of The Decameron (1970) and The Canterbury Tales (1972), but essentially the subject remains the same as does its reliance on the method of storytelling to subvert traditional roles. While it still deals with all aspects of living and dying, the difference with Arabian Nights is that the tone is more geared towards sexuality as a force for liberation and the roles that the film subverts are not so much those of the rich and poor or the sacred and the profane as much as the sexual roles.
Arabian Nights then is a film that revels in the pleasures of the flesh, finding in the form of the body and in the nature of love that all men and women are exalted and made equal. It’s there in the story of Berhane and Giana, two deities who recruit a young man and a young woman on their travels in order to settle a bet and discover that love does not discriminate between the plain and the beautiful. Most evidently, it’s in the running thread story that opens the film, where Zumurruo (Ines Pellegrini), the Lady of Moons, rejects offers from rich merchants and important men who long to possess her and instead chooses at random a young man at the market, Nuredin (Franco Merli), to be her lover. The path of their love is not so simple however, and it takes Zumurruo and Nuredin through many twists and turns that weave through the other stories and stories-within-stories of others whose paths they cross, Zumurruo in the course of their story even becoming a man and honoured as a King.
There is no sign of a Shahrazad in this Arabian Nights, but rather it’s in the multiplicity of the stories, of love and love in its many forms that Pasolini seeks to find a wider view of human love and sexuality, the film opening and closing with the quotation “The complete truth does not lay in one dream, but in several dreams”. These many facets of love and sexuality are explored in the other stories, not only showing the joys that love brings, but also how men can also have the capacity to deceive and betray in the name of love, and can act out of self-interest as well as self-sacrifice. A young man, Aziz (Ninetto Davoli), about to be married, falls under the spell of another, and learns from his ex-fiancée the words to move her heart, ultimately understanding the nature of true love, but gaining the wisdom perhaps too late. The stories also take on a fabulous nature, with young men daring to do battle with djinns and demons, trying to cheat fate and destiny, and sometimes, as the story of Princess Dunya, succeeding in creating their own destiny or capturing their own nightingales.
Pasolini’s version of The 1,001 Arabian Nights however has little in common with the traditional telling of fairytales, and while there are fabulous stories, the effects are a bit cheap-looking and the acting is amateurish, Pasolini seeming to bring it all a bit more down-to-earth. As a Marxist filmmaker, the stories and the storytelling tradition rather represent the voice of the people, their hopes and desires and how they can all be made equal. There are many non-professional actors, few of them conventionally handsome in a movie-star way, but they are natural in Pasolini’s celebration of their nakedness where it matters not whether one is rich, poor, ugly or beautiful to enjoy what these bodies have to offer.
This return to the essence of what makes us human and thus equal is the ultimate aim of Pasolini in his ‘Trilogy of Life’ series of films and by taking these stories back to their source, divesting them of falsehood, adornment and symbolism, Pasolini succeeds in Arabian Nights in touching on deeper, human qualities, finding them in the desert locations where civilisation was first born, celebrating the magnificence of being human and having the capacity to love and be exalted by love.
Arabian Nights is released on Blu-ray in the UK by the BFI. The film is held on a BD50 disc and comes with a 1080/24p encode. Extra features are all also presented in full HD. The disc is region coded for Region B (UK and Europe)only.
First of all, it has to be said that the new transfer that the BFI have sourced from the original 35mm negative film elements is light-years ahead of their previous standard definition release of Arabian Nights. There are however still problems that seem to have been picked up during the film’s digital restoration and transfer. Most obviously, blacks are very flat, shadow detail is poor, there is strong contrast and there may even be less detail available in dark interior scenes than the old DVD edition. There is much less grain visible than in the previous release of the film and only one or two minor flecks, but it seems to have come at the cost of HD-DVDNR filtering. Due to the nature of the rather shaky camera movements that are characteristic of the film, the noise reduction also seems to have a side effect of introducing some blurring and very minor morphing or shifting of objects during movements, which I didn’t detect in the transfers of The Decameron or The Canterbury Tales. While it might not be as impressive then as the other two ‘Trilogy of Life’ films, the benefits of the HD transfer are certainly evident elsewhere, particularly in the colours and skin tones, all of which show excellent detail and definition. When it looks good it’s great and sometimes even rather impressive, but it’s not consistently strong enough.
The film’s original Italian soundtrack is presented in 48 kHz PCM 2.0 and the tone is clear throughout. Ennio Morricone’s orchestral arrangements come across with excellent warmth of tone, dialogue and sound effects are all fine, and there are no problems with background noise, hiss or distortion. Problems with lip-syncing are down to how the film was made, it being synchronised in post-production.
English subtitles are optional, the font white and clearly readable throughout. The translation isn’t exact, translating most, but not all of the dialogue in full detail as it is spoken, but they manage to get a reasonable balance between accuracy, brevity and readability.
The English version (2.10:15) differs only from the Italian in its United Artists title and English language opening credits, the film itself being the same transfer as the main feature only with an English language dub. The quality of the audio track is much the same as the Italian and it’s no worse dubbed - it may even be better, suggesting that some of the actors may have been speaking their lines in English. In any case it’s there as an alternative, and also has optional English Hard of Hearing subtitles.
The film’s United Artist’s Trailer (2:36) is included, with English titles but no dialogue.
The Deleted Scenes (21:11) are not post-dubbed, but have a music score added. They would seem to be extensions to two of the stories in the film. The appearance of Nuredin’s mother and father’s in one sequence would suggest that this might have been intended as the opening sequence of the film. The other segments all seem to be an extension of the Dunya story, which does now seem to end rather abruptly in the film. In his original review of the film (included in the booklet here), Tony Rayns notes that the original length of the film was 155 minutes when premiered at Cannes, so it’s possible that these are the sections cut from the film and not two complete stories, but since these have no dialogue, I’m not sure if this is in fact the case.
A booklet is also included containing commentary on the film and its literary source by Roger Clarke and the film’s original 1975 review from Monthly Film Bulletin by Tony Rayns, as well as the same essay by Sam Rohdie on The Trilogy of Life and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith’s biography of Pier Paolo Pasolini found in the booklets of the other two films, The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales.
There is a great deal more to Pasolini’s adaptations of the three films in the ‘Trilogy of Life’ than them being controversial bawdy stories with a great deal of medieval sex and nudity, but this element would inevitably be seized upon by the film industry and exploited for commercial purposes, opening up a whole subgenre of cheap, smutty Italian medieval erotic comedies. This may have had something to do with Pasolini eventually repudiating the films and, when combined with the complex issues of his personal life, effectively propel him towards the depiction of a darker side of human nature in his final film Salò, but in Arabian Nights at least there is conviction in his return to a more innocent time, finding truth and beauty in the magnificent stories. The condition of the original materials proves to be more problematic here than in the other two ‘Trilogy of Life’ films, but the benefits of the BFI’s High-Definition transfer is certainly evident and the film consequently often looks as fabulous as it should.