Arts Review, Movies
Miguel Gomes, director & co-writer w/Telmo Churro & Mariana Ricardo
Featuring: Chico Chapas (Simao), Margarida Carpinterio (Mae/Gloria), Fernanda Loureiro (Judge), Crista Alfaiate (Genio/Vaca), Joao Pedro Bernard (Humberto), Joana de Verona (Vania), Lucky (Dixie)
You’ve got to hand it to the Portuguese cultural establishment. The Desolate One, Portugal’s official entry into the Oscar best foreign film sweepstakes, is a vicious attack on their federal government’s austerity policy during the country’s current massive economic recession. Striking a sardonic tone that offers up occasional bursts of humour and affection, The Desolate One is darkly comic look at life in a country that is financially devastated but somehow continues to maintain its feisty if tragic existence.
Miguel Gomes has created an epic drama about his country. The Desolate One is part two of a trilogy of feature length films entitled The Arabian Nights. He’s borrowed the structure of the classic 1001 Nights, including a Scheherazade styled narrator, but created new stories for contemporary times. Each film in the Arabian Nights trilogy is further divided into more stories and The Desolate One is no exception.
The first third of The Desolate One focuses on Simao, a very lean older man, who is running away from the police in rough mountain lands. Avoiding drones and supported by many locals including a trio of young women, Simao has become a Robin Hood figure despite having committed multiple murders, which are never justified. If there’s a point to this neo-realist opening tale, it’s that people are so disgruntled that they’ll support anyone who defies the authorities.
The second story, “The Tears of a Judge,” is dramatised like classic Greek theatre. Set in an amphitheatre, the trial of one crime turns tragic-comically into the equivalent of a shaggy dog tale. Eventually, everyone in the amphitheatre, most of whom wear masks, is implicated into the escalating set of crimes as the confessions progress. The judge, brilliantly played by Fernanda Loureiro, is slowly worn down from a figure full of confidence into someone who weeps for the society she is sworn to offer justice.
The final story, “The Owners of Dixie,” is divided into three parts(!), all dealing with people who adopt a combo Maltese terrier and poodle named Dixie. It’s no knock on the wonderful actors to acclaim Lucky, the dog who plays Dixie, as the star of the film. As Gomes’ script points out, Dixie is “a loving machine and a forgetting machine.” Perhaps a metaphor for Portugal?
At any rate, the final third of The Desolate One concentrates on Dixie’s owners, all of whom live in straitened circumstances in a large Brutalist apartment block. Though they all suffer hard times and keep on handing off Dixie to a new owner, the denizens of the block are a fascinating group of people, whose lives are truly ones of “quiet desperation,” as Thoreau would have put it.
The Desolate One is a sad but lovely film. It’s the most accessible part of a very strong trilogy, The Arabian Nights, which will play at TIFF Bell Lightbox this week. The films are well worth seeing.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
Tune in to hear Marc Glassman’s Art Reviews
Friday’s at 9:07am on Good Day GTA.