How would a notable director make a film based on the Thousand and One Nights now? Enlist some notable actors, build some spectacular sets, spend a lot of money on CGI to give visual expression to the fantastic. Maybe, for a highbrow audience, include some knowing or ironic framing material, to encourage consciousness of our apartness from this exotic world of stories, of our status as post-colonial voyeurs…
Pier Paolo Pasolini, choosing this for the last in his series of three erotic picaresques, took a different route. He enlisted a ragtag of young Italians with little acting experience, and trailed around spectacular locations (in Ethiopia, Yemen, Iran, Nepal), apparently picking raw local talent on the spot to fill out the cast. Nor is there any question of distance from the story: he plunges us straight in, and the best way to enjoy the film is to submit to the tale-telling. Pasolini dispenses entirely with the story that frames all the other stories, and which gives piquancy to the narrative’s endless inventiveness (Scheherazade’s survival depends on her being able to keep up the entertainment). This makes the film less subtle than its literary source, but does perhaps help us forget that we are playing make-believe.
The film is not just a random string of disconnected tales. The themes of captivity, escape and freedom run through it. We see, perhaps, that life is harsh, but that freedom and pleasure can be found through resourcefulness. We can also ponder the film’s motto: the truth is revealed not in one dream but in many. The stories are out of our reach, we can hardly see them as true. But they do show us some true things about our world.
The use of amateur actors works wonderfully, at least in dramatic terms. These stories were invented, enjoyed, embellished, and passed on by the folk, and it is entirely appropriate to see them inhabited by the folk. Never mind that most of the leading actors clearly do not belong in the locations as the rest of the cast do. This is a film in which European viewers are invited to enter into the world of the stories, as the European actors do. The effort of suspending disbelief is not great, thanks to the vigour of the performances. The crude dubbing can be distracting, but probably the scenes would not have been performed with such spontaneity under the constraints of live sound recording.
One thing that a filmmaker would certainly not do now, on pain of scandal, is enlist teenagers from much less sophisticated cultural backgrounds than his own and get them to enact sexual scenes. Well, this certainly does give a sense of freshness to the erotic content running through the film, but is also likely to make the viewer feel some discomfort at enjoying watching the cast go at it. My judgement, naí¯ve maybe, is that Pasolini’s film is knowingly transgressive, but not in a cynical or debasing way. The use of amateur actors was one of the enlivening features of post-war Italian cinema, and I would like to think Arabian Nights is an honourable continuation of that tradition. Whatever the ethics of Pasolini’s relationship with his cast, in that uninhibited era, I think what we have now is a film that the participants could be proud of, rather than ashamed of. Though ribald, sexually explicit, and violent, it is not coarse or brutal – a series of dreams, flickering only occasionally into nightmare.
Also available from the BFI on DVD and Blu-ray: The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales.