The least played blu-ray in my collection is Pier Paulo Pasolini’s 1974 version of Arabian Nights. That’s because, on getting a blu-ray player, the first films that I thought of that I wanted to see cleaned up and pristine are those within the famous Trilogy of Life that starts with The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales. Both films have a wonderfully gauche sense of story about them, using a strange mix of Italian thespians, untrained toothless locals and British tv actors; Robin Asquith and Nicholas Grace from Are You Being Served? feature, as does peak Dr Who Tom Baker, seen enthusiastically soaping his own knob. In their own strange fashion, they’re arguably the best version of Boccaccio and Chaucer respectively, so why doesn’t Arabian Nights have the same charm?
On the third attempt, and after a bit of research, I finally got the hang of Pasolini’s Arabian Nights, but it’s no easy text. Another reviewer compared it to The Sargasso Manuscript, and that’s about the best steer you could get. Instead of telling each story one after another, Pasolini mixes things up by having the tales intersect and diverge without warning; not easy on a first or even a second watch. That said, there’s plenty of pleasure watching regular Pasolini stars like Franco Citti or Ninetto Davoli give their usual lip-smacking performances, and the Iranian locations are absolutely stunning. Production designer Dante Ferretti does his usual top-notch job, and Ennio Morricone conjured us an untypical soundtrack.
Arabian Nights is a curiosity piece now, mainly because such texts have become sanitised; Pasolini, as always, can’t wait to get to the lusty punch-lines, and his version features a veritable forest of gnarly genitals and unkempt pubic hair. But there’s also a drive towards story, and to bringing classic texts to life, that makes Arabian Nights absorbing even as the runt of the litter; it doesn’t offer the conventional excitements of the other two films, but it does offer something else that’s well worth attempting, even if it’ll tax the patience of most viewers. Pasolini, of course, denounced the whole trilogy shortly before he was murdered, but the quality and the ambition he fought for live on.