Credit: MGM
by Morris Yang Featured Film Kicking the Canon Kicking the Canon

Arabian Nights — Pier Paolo Pasolini

June 21, 2024

The provocations of the Italian poet, critic, and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini have been, for contemporary viewers, largely condensed into that one magnum opus of his: Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, with its unerring plunge into depravity, also has the good fortune of being its maker’s last mark on earth. Just three weeks before it premiered at the Paris Film Festival, Pasolini was murdered under circumstances still mysterious, his death a gruesome omen not just of the film to come, but also of the lifelong controversies he roused through an artistic oeuvre never quite beholden to any stripe or faction. Pasolini was known, chiefly among other things, as a Marxist; his disdain for the bourgeoisie and its unholy alliance with fascism is apparent throughout Salò and his earlier works. But dogmatic he was not, and the auteur’s many identities and shifting allegiances found expression in saintly and unorthodox depictions of a working class typically vilified or paraded as socialist vanguard. Disillusioned somewhat by the events of May 1968, Pasolini filmed a triptych affectionately titled the “Trilogy of Life,” in seeming rebuke of his “Catholic Marxist” moniker. It was to be succeeded by a “Trilogy of Death,” of which just Salò survives, completed before the director’s passing.

Arabian Nights, the third film in the former triad, follows 1971’s The Decameron and 1972’s The Canterbury Tales in restoring onto the modern screen ancient stories of Rabelaisian origin. Medieval Europe, England, and the Middle East respectively constituted the fertile grounds for Pasolini’s exploration of a world before capitalism, predating several of its coercive tenets: the commodification of sexuality, the institutionalization of bodies, and the installation of an ardent morality that governed the masses more thoroughly and insidiously than religion and ethnic affinity ever could. Yet a crucial if subtle distinction separates Arabian Nights from its predecessors: where the latter were likewise adaptations of tales, yes, of the vivid imagination, these tales had a single, unambiguous authorship (the humanist Giovanni Boccaccio for The Decameron, published in 1353, and the poet and civil servant Geoffrey Chaucer for The Canterbury Tales, published less than half a century later), whereas One Thousand and One Nights lacks a definitive provenance. In its place appears a framing device manifested through the figure of Scheherazade, whose inventions — fictions, parables, narratives — are what constitute the literary collection’s dazzling and sensual novelty.

Pasolini’s adaptation dispenses with Scheherazade altogether, but its retelling of her stories is no less fluid and pleasurable. While the filmmaker positioned himself explicitly as author in the previous two entries, playing a painter in The Decameron and Chaucer himself in The Canterbury Tales, his authority here is virtually unpronounced; so, in fact, is everyone else’s. Arabian Nights opens and closes with the tale of a young man named Nur-e-Din (played by a fresh-faced Franco Merli) whose slave girl Zumurrud is stolen from him in a moment of deceit. Zumurrud defies her many captors and, having been mistaken for a man, becomes the king of a distant city. Nur-e-Din, in search of his lost beloved, is roped into becoming a porter for a woman and her two sisters, seamlessly slipping into the shadows as another set of characters foregrounds the film. A princess named Dunya, not too dissimilar from the newly crowned Zumurrud, lies in repose amid her lonely abode and imagines (or perhaps revisits) the life of a careless youth, Aziz (Ninetto Davoli), whose exploits with a mysterious lover cause untold suffering for his cousin — and soon-to-be-wife.

There’s something almost insouciant about how the various tales in Arabian Nights drift, mingle, defy, and preempt one another as their lurid spectacles of passion and devotion present themselves without warning, their ebbs and flows rendered inconsistent and mercurial. Ironically, the presence of a quasi-omniscient narrator in Pasolini’s two prior adaptations flattens their tapestries of cinematic icons and images, as the audience is enjoined less to regale themselves with hopes of a textual unity beyond the author’s own than they are to bear witness to the potpourri of what might crudely be approximated as “bare life.” Giorgio Agamben’s term, referring to a status quo before biopolitical machinations have carved and diced their way through the sex and sensuality of society, carries a weight sustained and romanticized — as Pasolini’s detractors accuse him of, not always fairly — by the films’ candid exploration of bodies, pleasures, and eroticism shorn of pornographic intent. In Arabian Nights, this bare life runs rampant too, but is constrained by the imposition of a master narrative (of Nur-e-Din and Zumurrud) which challenges our perception of its accompanying narratives as anything more than whimsies and fanciful distractions, not unlike Scheherazade’s in the literary original.

This challenge, of course, is the point. The film’s alluring mise en abymes refract through their recursive structure an oneiric quality, tempting all who journey through to accompany its cacophony of voices and gazes in a state of undress, surrendering to the scintillating richness of oriental myths on display. If this runs the risk of exoticism, and it frequently does, Pasolini nonetheless seeks within this framework a salvation from contemporary sexual moralism, evincing a traveler’s wide-eyed innocence as he visits far-flung lands and incorporates all these shooting locations — Yemen, Iran, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Nepal — within an imago of pre-capitalist harmony. One should not, however, read Pasolini as the foolish believer; humanity’s vices are likewise perpetuated and reinforced by social forces and the weakness of wills, while their consequences, imposed upon victims guilty and innocent, are done so with neither modest hesitation nor rabid sensationalism.

Famous for his straddling of Catholicism and communist politics as a gay man, Pasolini conceived of his “Trilogy of Life” as a raucous lumpen-proletarian celebration, which diminished in its enthusiasm over time. Upon the huge commercial and critical successes of The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales (winning the Berlinale’s Silver and Golden Bear respectively), the taboo around onscreen nudity was eroded at the cost of business opportunism paving the way for knock-off softcore imitations. These have, for the most part, retained little of their exemplars’ flair for storytelling; and by 1974, biographical elements wove their way into Arabian Nights, with Davoli — Pasolini’s lover for a decade — leaving him for a woman. The literal castration of Aziz at the hands of his jilted lover is no mere crude attempt at symbolism; his lover was jilted upon his betrayal of both her and his fiancé, its violence sharpened by Davoli’s perceived renunciation of homosexuality proper. All the more, then, is the film’s ending suffused with a poignancy that would later curdle into untrammeled darkness in Salò. Reunited with his slave-queen after a comedy of errors, Nur-e-Din professes his love for her and for God’s great will that “bitter was its beginning, but how sweet its end.” Like all great stories, the sweeter their musk, the heavier the coming of the dusk.

Part of Kicking the Canon — The Film Canon