Il fiore delle mille e una notte
Pier Paolo Pasolini
Italy / France, 1974
Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 09 July 2004
Source 35mm print, screened at Film Forum
Features: The Final Films of Pier Paolo Pasolini
Reviews: The Canterbury Tales
Reviews: The Decameron
Reviews: Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom
Arabian Nights is the final film of the Trilogy of Life and further develops Pasolini’s notions of the relationship of narrative to an idealized medieval world. This is the broad swath of the Near East, from North Africa and as far as Nepal, presented here with a curious mix of ethnographic detail and orientalist exoticism: medieval ruins, desert landscapes, caravanserai, boldly colorful costuming, and the music of the oud and the ghaita. Although the film is dubbed entirely in Italian, Pasolini seems generous enough in using indigenous actors along with some of his favorites from his native country. However, in this film, the director does not appear at all. Indeed, while there are many artisans and craftsmen who appear in the film, there is no central artist figure as there is in the previous two installments of the trilogy. Instead, the stories arise haphazardly, sometimes from individual characters who wander through the story, sometimes almost from out of nowhere. This third and last film thoroughly integrates the narratives into the larger context of the society in which they take place. Even though they are presented roughly within the context of a frame-story, the tales seem to have a life independent of that story’s unifying presence, appearing randomly or seemingly of their own accord.
This is another example of Pasolni’s alteration of his source material: he completely eliminates the original frame-story of the storyteller Scheherazade (along with some of the more famous tales from the original, like those of Aladdin, Sinbad, and Ali Baba). The stories of Pasolini’s Arabian Nights are not the property of any one artist or storyteller who oversees human interaction (like the character of Giotto in The Decameron) or compiles tales from the comfort of his library (like the character of Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales). Instead, the tales of Arabian Nights arise fully formed out of the context of the people, ungoverned by any dominant individual intellect. The film’s epigraph reads “Truth is not found in one dream, but in many,” and the tales in this film seem like the endless collective dream of a culture. If Arabian Nights is the most colorful and aesthetically beautiful film of the trilogy, it is also the freest in its narrative structure and the least confined by its source material. In its beauty of color and setting, it is rather like Paradjanov’s Sayat Nova or Scorsese’s Kundun, deliriously abstract with baroque imagery and an elusive sense of place and time.