Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Production: PEA (Rome), Les Productions Artistes Associés (Paris); Technicolor; running time: 155 minutes. (GB version: 128 minutes.)
Producer: Alberto Grimaldi; screenplay: Pier Paolo Pasolini; photography: Giuseppe Ruzzolini; editor: Enzo Ocone, Nino Baragli, Tatiana Casini Morigi; assistant directors: Umberto Angelucci, Peter Sheperd; art director: Dante Ferretti; music: Ennio Moriccone; sound: Luciano Welisch; costumes: Danilo Donati.
Cast: Ninetto Davoli ( Aziz ); Ines Pellegrini ( Zumurrud ); Franco Citti ( Demon ); Tessa Bouche; Margaret Clementi; Franco Merli; Francesila Noel; Ali Abdulla; Christian Alegni.
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Pasolini was one of the most idiosyncratic of all filmmakers, the strangeness and difficulty of his work arising from his commitment to contradiction: Arabian Nights (the crowning achievement of the trilogy begun with The Decameron and continued with The Canterbury Tales ) opens with the quotation "The complete truth lies not in one dream but in several." The basis of this commitment was his refusal to abandon any of the diverse and partly irreconcilable influences that determined the nature of his art: Catholicism, Marxism, homosexuality, the urban slums (settings of his early novels), the peasantry (he wrote poetry in the Friulan dialect), neo-realism, an attachment to the fantastic and miraculous. While Arabian Nights seems as far removed as one can imagine from the subject-matter one associates with neo-realism (the attempt to capture both the external and internal realities of the contemporary moment), it remains remarkably faithful to the neo-realist aesthetic: the use of non-professionals, location shooting, spontaneity valued above polish or deliberation. The corollary of this is that when artifice is demanded by the subject-matter (the flight of the genie, Nureddin's encounter with the lion in the desert), the special effects are always patently visible, as primitive and naive as possible (cf. Jesus walking on the water in The Gospel According to St. Matthew ).
It is the commitment to dramatizing (rather than attempting to reconcile or eradicate) contradiction that led Pasolini toward the experimentations with narrative that characterize his best work ( Teorema, Medea, Salo ). Nowhere is this more evident than in Arabian Nights , where the intricate interlocking of diverse tales seems motivated by the desire to juxtapose the several dreams that (taken in conjunction) might, if they cannot reveal, at least point toward, the complete truth.
Using the story of Nureddin and Zumurrud as a unifying thread, Pasolini contains six other stories (organized in two groups of three) within a five-part structure as follows:
Each trio of stories has its own internal themes. The first three (brief anecdotes) are concerned with free sexuality and equalization: the wager of the third (and most developed) ends in a tie, the demonstration that female desire and male desire are equally potent. The interwoven tales of the second trio are all concerned with notions of Fate: two stories in which fate is shown to be inescapable are enclosed within a story in which fate is overcome. Further, the story of Aziz, Aziza and Badur stands in contradiction to the framework story of Nureddin and Zumurrud. They are linked by the dictum (itself a contradiction) that "fidelity is beautiful, but no more than infidelity." In the Aziz tale the conflict leads to death and castration, but in the framework story fidelity and infidelity are reconciled: Nureddin, in his search for his beloved, can be led into countless delightful sexual diversions, but his fidelity to Zumurrud is always triumphant over them, and finally rewarded in a happy ending that plays on (in order to repudiate) sexual power-relations.
The acknowledgement and celebration of diversity is an aspect of one of the central drives of Pasolini's work: the effort to rediscover a sense of the wonderful, the magical. In Teorema , the sense of wonder has been destroyed by the bourgeoisie and can be regained (very problematically) only through the liberation of sexuality; in Medea , the magical world of the opening is eroded by the growth of patriarchy and capitalism, until "Nothing is possible any more." Of all Pasolini's films, Arabian Nights comes closest to realizing the sense of wonder, through an eroticism purged of all contamination by the pornographic.