One of Pasolini's trilogy of explorations of the medium of storytelling and spoken narrative ("Canterbury Tales" and "Decameron" are the other pair), "Arabian Nights" is the most integrated and coherent of the three. It follows a theme of lust, love, and loss. A slave girl, Zumarud, is empowered to choose her own master - she chooses a youth, gives him the money to buy her, and the pair of them set up home together.
Only he loses her through greed and naivety. He sets out to find her, and the film follows their many adventures and the adventures of those people whose lives they touch. The film is presented in a series of vignettes rather than as a single storyline. In Burton's translation of the 1001 Arabian Nights, King Shahryar believes that all women are inherently unfaithful, and murders each new wife after the wedding night until Scheherazade enters his life. Each night she buys her life by recounting another story, enrapturing the king.
There is no Scheherazade here, but themes of betrayal and greed run through the film. In the main, the setting is in the desert or Arab villages rather than a king's palace. It is a celebration of the beauty of youth and their innocent sexual energy. In one vignette, an old man seduces three youths, in another, a caravan train picks up a young man and young woman and introduces them to one another.
The acting is amateurish and clumsy, but that enhances the eroticism in places - there is none of the confident, rehearsed choreography of the professional here. And yet the sex is passionless, static, unreal. This is a manipulative world where the weak and the naïve are exposed to others who will routinely lie, cheat, steal, and use one another. This is a world in which men have to have love explained to them by women. This is a world of animal instincts mediated and civilised by the use of language.
The visual imagery is stunning, though much of the setting is either desert or bleached out, white or sandy buildings. Only an occasional splash of colour is permitted. The imagery, then, is of an architectural quality, the settings framing the litheness and suppleness of the youthful human body. Again, the eroticism is understated but implicit.
And the characters who pass across the screen tell tales or recite poetry. The tales flow into vignettes or little sub-plots, then drift back to the main theme again. This is the story-telling tradition as popular communication and as explanation. The story is told that ... and people live awaiting the story to unfold, waiting for the moment when the story comes true. The story is told that a man shall cross the desert and become king of the walled city ... .
The beautiful Zumarud finally finds herself mistaken for a man and is made king of the desert city. Men are now her slaves and she has absolute power. This is the absolute power which Scheherazade strove to wield, the power to enrapture, to capture the minds and imaginations of men. Only Scheherazade slaved to capture the king's attention and love by telling fantasies - Zumarud enslaves men by fulfilling their own fantasies. Women, it seems, are not unfaithful - men are deceived by their own thoughts and expectations.
Pasolini creates a story within a story within a story. Each person has a story to tell, but how many others will listen? Are the stories we tell truth or fiction? Can we recognise our own truths? Are the stories meant to inform, to entrance, to entertain, or to deceive. For ultimately, of course, Scheherazade deceives and manipulates her husband as she instrumentally sets out to save her own life by telling him stories. Who can blame her?
Pasolini's "Arabian Nights" is a sumptuous, meandering narrative which will entertain and amuse.