‘The Restless One’

Marina Warner

View full image

On Monday, 20 May, the LRB in partnership with MUBI screened Miguel Gomes’s film ‘The Restless One’ at the Garden Cinema as the latest in a series of events exploring the art of literary adaptation. Marina Warner, whose many books include ‘Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights’, spoke about it beforehand.

A brass ring concealed under a rug lifts to lead to a hidden world; a neglected door behind a curtain open onto a parallel universe; Lewis Carroll’s Alice passes through a mirror over a mantelpiece; C.S. Lewis’s child heroes find a portal in a wardrobe filled with mothballed fur coats; Philip Pullman’s Will and Lyra use a subtle knife to cut through the membrane of here and now to travel to its uncanny double on the other side. This sense of hidden worlds permeates the literature of enchantment, defined as aja’ib in Arabic tradition (by contrast with adab, literature associated with culture, civilisation, polish). In the 1001 Nights, numerous tales take you down passages or wells, through walls and along tunnels, to worlds down below on the other side of reality.

When I was invited by the LRB to introduce Miguel Gomes’s film The Restless One, the first part of his trilogy The Arabian Nights (2015), at the Garden Cinema, I didn’t expect what I found. Heading down a dreary side street, past a scruffy gentlemen’s entertainment salon (rather old-time Soho), into the basement of a solid Edwardian pile on the Holborn edge of Covent Garden, I passed through from the world outside into Prohibition-era New York, Chicago or Los Angeles, when Hollywood truly was the Dream Factory and the silver screen the mirror of private desires. Art Deco chrome signage, glowing neon strip lighting, a curving cocktail bar, alcoves with crimson velour banquettes and, on the walls, stills from classic films and portraits of screen idols (Catherine Deneuve lined the alcove where I had a drink) – the Garden Cinema is two years old but feels as if it has flown in from a hundred years ago.

Gomes doesn’t exactly tell stories from the Nights, but takes off from their generic style (sprawling, one tale inside another), their motifs (talking animals, magicians), their themes (extreme passion) and their mixed tone (tragedy, buffoonery, ribaldry, lyricism); he also shows his awareness – larky, parodic and solemn – of the many cinematic predecessors who also found in the Arabo-Persian narrative tradition a way of talking about what happens in contemporary real life.

Among these progenitors, the most prominent is Pier Paolo Pasolini, who made Il Fiore delle Mille e una Notte in 1974, as the third of a trilogy following Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio’s Decameron. Pasolini is far more licentiously Orientalist than any auteur can be today (when I showed his film to students in Essex in the 1990s, one of them commented: ‘A lot of willies!’). But Pasolini chose the genre because, as a Gramscian communist, he wanted to be in tune with il popolo, and make films from popular literature. He’d realised that Neorealism didn’t appeal to the audiences he wanted to reach nearly as much as fables, legends, fairytales, comic tales, animal exempla – in short, the literature of enchantment.

At the start of Gomes’s Arabian Nights, we see the director, a hapless, dishevelled comic figure, trying to make a film about the economic collapse of Portugal in 2014 and running away in despair from his crew. He cries out wistfully that he wants to tell marvellous, entertaining stories that will make audiences happy and yet keep faith with the disasters of Portugal under a sentence of severe austerity. The capaciousness of the 1001 Nights offered Gomes a bag of tools to respond to this challenge. The conventions of the genre are liberating: no demands of plausibility or probability, no verisimilitude or accuracy, and an easy-going, proliferating structure. As Paul Ricoeur has observed, ‘telling a story is deploying an imaginary space for thought experiments in which moral judgment operates in a hypothetical mode.’ The 1001 Nights has a long history of offering imaginary spaces for such activities, and the cinema has been one of its richest playgrounds and laboratories, from Georges Méliès and Fritz Lang’s silent shorts, and the epic versions of The Thief of Baghdad (l924, 1940) to Disney’s two Aladdins (l992, 2019).

The Nights offered Gomes the freedom to make both a documentary record and an absurdist freewheeling flight of fancy, mockery cut with romance, parable with satire: nothing is beyond cinema – an island of siren girls, a talking cockerel. But, like Pasolini before him, Gomes doesn’t bring in magic: no otherworldly supernatural interventions, no special effects, no tricks. In Gomes’s eyes, the marvellous runs with the grain of the everyday: the first tale (‘of the Three Hard-ons’) is a bawdy caprice: EU and World Bank bureaucrats, aglow with pride in their new potency, soon find it has become an unbearable affliction.

Gomes also cools down the potential melodrama of the romance material, by casting children in a blazing love triangle. Out of rage and sorrow, the jilted lover sets devastating forest fires, but we know it’s not for real (though the forest is burning). In this Brechtian mode, Gomes, who has just won Best Director at Cannes for Grand Tour, is reminding us that storytelling is artifice.

When artists borrow from other cultures – adapting, shuffling, replaying – questions of appropriation and Orientalism arise. The Nights have been strongly Orientalised in every medium. Gomes faces this legacy without flinching. He sticks to local stories – news items from stricken post-crash Portugal – and pokes fun at the exotic clichés and lavish sensuality of previous versions of the Nights (the suits from the World Bank ride caparisoned camels led by grooms in skimpy attire, plus suspenders and boots). But overall, he remains undisturbed by anxieties of this stripe – travelling tales have never stopped at a linguistic or ethnic border. Like the Nights, animal fables have wandered all over the world. Stories are migrants and have always, like music and cooking, cross-fertilised culture. It’s a rich source of encounter and exchange, a commons of wonder.

If you weren’t able to attend the screening you can watch ‘The Restless One’ by signing up for thirty days free on MUBI.


  • 7 June 2024 at 5:59pm
    DonaldFarmer says:
    I am excited to see this now - thank you!

    BTW, there's a remarkable new novel from Nadia Asgous: Nulle Terre Ailleurs which reads like a modern aja'ib form, and very timely in these difficult days ...

    Al-Qods – Jérusalem. Tandis que je vaquais à mes occupations touristiques, un homme borgne à la peau purpurine, aux cheveux blancs, et une femme vêtue d’une robe longue, blanche et vaporeuse, brodée de fils d’or, s’échappèrent des plis froissés de l’imprévu. Ils entrouvrirent les portes vétustes de la ville antique, fertilisèrent le terreau de mon imaginaire et s’imposèrent comme des protagonistes d’une légende qui émergea de nos vies tissées d’indifférence.
    Qui sont ces deux personnages aux visages rongés par les stigmates de l’errance ? Comment la tragédie de leur peuple, les Revenants résilients, s’imposa-t-elle à moi comme une histoire à raconter à la face du monde autiste ?
    Nulle Terre Ailleurs est un roman qui ose pousser la porte du panthéon du possible. C’est un plaidoyer littéraire en faveur du vivre ensemble à Al-Qods – Jérusalem.