"If I think about the future of cinema as art, I shiver" (Y. Ozu, 1959)

As Mil e Uma Noites - Vol. 2, O Desolado (Miguel Gomes)

Sunday, 19 July 2015 10:14

A foreign body against the greens, yellows and browns

James Lattimer

Although Arabian Nights is a work of perpetual interpolation, it’s the second volume that celebrates both the pleasure and pain of insertion, for when one thing is put into another, some things change, but others do not. Perhaps that’s what makes The Desolate One so affecting, the slow, aching realisation that however joyful the insertion, it will still be swallowed up by reality sooner or later. Even where there is blood, there will later be pragmatism.


Clad in red, rangy fugitive Simão always feels like a foreign body against the greens, yellows and browns of the Portuguese landscape, despite his best efforts to blend in. At one point, he does indeed vanish into the vista behind him, only to frustratingly reappear shortly afterwards. As Simão roves this austere realm, a string of absurdities is inserted into his wanderings: a donkey dragging Miguel Gomes’ bloodied corpse, a trio of nubile women who offer all the trimmings, a pedalo for pottering across a lake. But all this absurdity comes to nothing in the impassive setting, drowned out by the relentless buzzing of insects, the roar of the wind, the sound of birdsong. It’s no surprise when the landscape finally expels Simão too, his capture as implacable as the air, the rocks and the sun or the lone poplar visible from his cell.


A principled judge must preside over a straightforward matter, the case of a desperate woman driven to sell her landlord’s possessions. Everyday life in a Portugal gripped by austerity, even if this nocturnal assembly is held in an ancient amphitheatre and not all its attendees are human. As the judge probes further, the circle of the implicated only widens: a runaway cow, a yelping pack of unrepentant thieves, a put-upon genie, a mournful olive tree. Yet all these gleeful injections of fantasy fall silent in the face of reality, each happy flight of fancy wrenched back down to earth by another true-life detail of Portuguese suffering. And it’s inevitably one final insertion that brings tears to the judge’s eyes, a note placed in a wallet to replace the money it held, a dignified apology for a theft whose only culprit is the situation itself.  


Somewhere among the trees, mist and herds of sheep, there lies a housing estate whose inhabitants are uncommonly sad, grown weary of evictions, rusted-up lifts and the air currents that circulate between the blocks. Yet one day, a mysterious newcomer arrives to lift the gloom, a quiet marvel in the form of a white dog named Dixie. His is a truly beneficent presence which does indeed spread joy, offering comfort to the desperate and uniting the marginalised. But tragedy is an unstoppable force, for even inserting such a perfect machine for loving into this cruel world cannot change its essential nature. Maybe that’s why Dixie must also be a machine for forgetting, shutting out the misery around him so as to continue his mission, the only thing able to confound him being the sheer miracle of his own spectral presence. 

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