Arabian Nights (Il fiore delle mille e una notte)

Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Screenplay: Pier Paolo Pasolini with Dacia Maraini
Stars: Ninetto Davoli (Aziz), Franco Citti (The Demon), Franco Merli (Nur Ed Din), Tessa Bouché (Aziza), Ines Pellegrini (Zumurrud), Margareth Clémenti (Aziz’s mother), Luigina Rocchi (Budur), Alberto Argentino (Prince Shahzmah), Francesco Paolo Governale (Prince Tagi), Salvatore Sapienza (Prince Yunan), Zeudi Biasolo (Zeudi)
MPAA Rating: NC-17
Year of Release: 1974
Country: Italy / France
Arabian Nights Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Arabian NightsThe third and final film in his “Trilogy of Life,” Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Arabian Nights (Il fiore delle mille e una notte), which is adapted from some of the more erotic tales from the Arabic story collection One Thousand and One Nights, differs markedly from the previous two films in the series, The Decameron (1971) and The Canterbury Tales (1972), each of which was also adapted from a canonical story collection. In one sense, Arabian Nights merges the themes and tones of those two films, maintaining some of the bawdy humor and joyful sexual liberty of The Decameron while also infusing some of the darker, more violent overtones of The Canterbury Tales (the playfulness of the film’s sexuality is offset with characters being crucified, castrated, and dismembered). Arabian Nights also lacks a central artist figure—the painter Giotto’s disciple in The Decameron and author Geoffrey Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales, both played by Pasolini himself—who in some way unifies the various stories in the film.

While all three films takes place in a premodern past tense, a crucial temporal setting that grounds Pasolini’s themes about sexuality and the human body uncorrupted by capitalism and commodification, the first two films were set in the more familiar environs of medieval Italy and England. Arabian Nights, on the other hand, is set in the Middle East, which Pasolini depicts via actual locations in Iran, Africa, Yemen, and Nepal. The film’s striking location work is certainly one of its chief appeals; the imagery if often genuinely sublime, although Pasolini still infuses the lush, painterly beauty with his roughshod, neorealist handheld camerawork. However, for some critics the film’s setting is also one of the its primary political and moral stumbling blocks, as Pasolini perhaps unwittingly does the very thing he professes to despise, as his European gaze “exoticizes” the Orient (which was precisely the role played by the English language edition of One Thousand and One Nights in the 18th century), turning it into an object to be consumed, rather than a culture with history and heritage (Pasolini is largely disinterested in actual history, anyway).

The fact that the film takes place in the Islamic world also vacates Arabian Nights of the previous films’ withering mockery of the Catholic Church and its dogma. Given the film’s setting, he could have easily turned his critical eye to Islam, but instead made a film that is largely devoid of religion (a Western character is referred to as a “Christian,” but that refers more to his being from the West, rather his religious affiliation). With the exception of two holy men who tell the story of how they left behind wealth and privilege for an ascetic life, no major characters are depicted as being religious at all, much less devout, and, more importantly, there are no religious authority figures to be found. Thus, Arabian Nights is arguably a secular film, its sexual themes unhindered by any form of repression or stricture from a higher authority (not surprisingly, then, the film poses homosexuality as simply one part of the human sexual spectrum, rather than depicting it as a source of social shame, blackmail, and even death, as in the previous two films).

The framing story in Arabian Nights involves a slave girl named Zumurrud (Ines Pellegrini) who is sold, at her insistence, to Nur Ed Din (Franco Merli), a sexually inexperienced young waif with no money. Zumurrud sexually initiates Nur Ed Din and they ostensibly fall in love, only to be separated when Zumurrud is kidnapped by a thief, the culmination of a premonition Zumurrud had that Nur Ed Din explicitly ignores. While Nur Ed Din spends the rest of the film trying to reclaim her, Zumurrud makes her own way by escaping her captivity and, dressed as a man, finds herself in a fabulous desert city where she is crowned king.

Throughout these adventures various characters that Nur Ed Din and Zumurrud meet tell stories (and some of them tell stories within stories, a feature of the original text), most of which are built around the tensions between faithfulness and betrayal. Chief among these is the lengthy story of Aziz (Ninetto Davoli), a young man who leaves his fiancée Aziza (Tessa Bouché) on their wedding day because he instantly falls in love with a mysterious woman named Budur (Luigina Rocchi). Nevertheless, Aziza assists Aziz in his relationship with Budur by helping him decode her signs and language, but it is ultimately to no avail as Aziz—like virtually all men in the film—is inherently callow and incapable of fidelity. Another of the film’s more memorable stories involves Prince Shahzmah (Alberto Argentino), who falls in love with a young woman who is being held captive by a demon (Franco Citti, who played the deplorable Ciappelletto in The Decameron and Satan himself in The Canterbury Tales).

Interestingly, Arabian Nights is the most female-centric of the three films in “The Trilogy of Life,” as men tend to be depicted as weak, unfaithful, and even downright stupid, while the female characters are often resourceful, strong, and dedicated. This results in some of the most memorable on-screen women in Pasolini’s cinema, but it also leads him to overemphasize male fallibility, which comes at the expense of narrative coherence.

Most problematic in this regard is Franco Merli’s Nur Ed Din, who is intended to be one of the film’s central points of identification, but is played as so devoid of brain cells that he quickly turns into an annoying cipher, a dim-witted fool who becomes more and more grating as the film goes on. Merli, a nonprofessional actor who Pasolini discovered working at a gas station, makes his character’s numerous bad decisions, selfish actions, and inexcusable foibles all the more annoying with his off-kilter and extremely amateurish performance. As an example of male unfaithfulness he is without peer, as he spends the film searching for Zumurrud, his supposed fated true love, but gets constantly sidetracked in various sexual adventures that he submits to without so much as a whimper of protest. Thus, by the time he is reunited with Zumurrud (who he believes to be a man), we wish that she would send him to the gallows rather than take him to bed. Alas, that is not Pasolini’s intent, and while Arabian Nights has its share of impressive vistas and narrative trickery, its fundamental emotional disconnect renders it inert—a beautiful bit of exotic fantasy that quickly dissipates.

The Decameron Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
The Trilogy of Life Criterion Collection Box SetArabian Nights is available exclusively as part of the three-disc “Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life” box set (SRP $79.95), which also includes The Decameron (1971) and The Canterbury Tales (1972). The box set is also available on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • Italian DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 monaural
  • Subtitles English
    SupplementsThe Decameron
  • Visual essay by film scholar Patrick Rumble
  • The Lost Body of Alibech (2005), a documentary by Roberto Chiesi about a lost sequence from the film
  • Via Pasolini (2005), a documentary featuring archival footage of Pasolini discussing his views on language, film, and modern society
  • Trailers

    The Canterbury Tales

  • Pasolini and the Secret Humiliation of Chaucer (2006), a documentary by Chiesi
  • Interview with film scholar Sam Rohdie
  • Interviews with production designer Dante Ferretti
  • Interview with composer Ennio Morricone
  • Trailers
  • Pasolini-approved English-dubbed track

    Arabian Nights

  • Visual essay by film scholar Tony Rayns
  • Introduction by director Pier Paolo Pasolini
  • Pasolini and the Form of the City (1974), a documentary by Pasolini and Paolo Brunatto about the Italian cities Orte and Sabaudia
  • Deleted scenes
  • Trailers

  • Insert booklet featuring essays by critic Colin MacCabe; Pasolini’s 1975 statement “Trilogy of Life Rejected”; excerpts from Pasolini’s Berlin Film Festival press conference for The Canterbury Tales; and a report from the set of Arabian Nights by critic Gideon Bachmann
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$79.95 (box set)
    Release DateNovember 13, 2012

    The three films in Pasolini’s “Trilogy of Life” have not always been easy to find on video, despite having been released on videotape, laserdisc, and DVD over the years. However, none of those previous editions hold a candle to Criterion’s, which offers all-new high-definition transfers of the films that help bring out their fanciful interplay of neorealist rawness and self-conscious artiness. Each of the films has been given a new 2K transfer from a 35mm interpositive and then digitally restored. There is still some roughness and slight damage apparent in the films even after being digitally restored, including a series of scarlet vertical hairlines in several places in The Canterbury Tales. Nevertheless, the artifacts are minimal and never distracting. Colors are excellent on all three transfers, which especially benefits the Asian and African locations in Arabian Nights and the intensely colorful costumes in The Canterbury Tales. With all the skin on display throughout the film, it is worth noting that flesh tones look natural throughout, and each transfer maintains a strong presence of grain that is essential the film’s earthy textures. Criterion has clearly done their best with the soundtracks, offering them all in clean, 24-bit, digitally restored transfers. However, no amount of digital work can improve the awful nature of the postproduction dubbing and tinny sound effects in all three films (The Canterbury Tales offers both awful Italian and English language soundtracks, the latter being preferable since that is the language most of the actors are speaking).
    Criterion’s “The Trilogy of Life” box set is buoyed by a robust set of extras that help to historically and aesthetically contexualize the three films in terms of Pasolini’s overall career as a filmmaker. While none of the three films boasts an audio commentary, The Decameron and Arabian Nights both feature edifying 25-minute visual essays by Patrick Rumble and Tony Rayns, respectively. The set also includes several recent documentaries about Pasolini and his films. These include The Lost Body of Alibech (2005), a documentary by Roberto Chiesi about a lost sequence from The Decameron; Via Pasolini (2005), a documentary composed of archival footage of Pasolini discussing his life story and his views on language, film, and modern society; Pasolini and the Secret Humiliation of Chaucer (2006), a documentary about Pasolini’s adaptation of The Canterbury Tales (there is also significant focus on several deleted sequences that are now lost); and Pasolini and the Form of the City (1974), an older documentary by Pasolini and Paolo Brunatto about the Italian cities Orte and Sabaudia. The Arabian Nights disc contains 20 minutes of deleted scenes that were included in the original 155-minute cut that won a Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. The set also includes new interviews with film scholar Sam Rohdie, author of The Passion of Pier Paolo Pasolini; production designer Dante Ferretti, who worked on all three films; and composer Ennio Morricone, who worked on The Canterbury Tales and Arabian Nights. Pasolini, who was murdered in 1975, appears in a brief introduction to Arabian Nights that is culled from film and video footage from a press conference following that film’s premiere at Cannes. All three films also feature several trailers for their respective U.S. releases. The thick insert booklet includes new essays on the three films by critic Colin MacCabe; Pasolini’s 1975 statement “Trilogy of Life Rejected”; excerpts from Pasolini’s Berlin Film Festival press conference for The Canterbury Tales; and a report from the set of Arabian Nights by critic Gideon Bachmann.

    Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick

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    James Kendrick

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