The Thousand and One Nights has been a favored source for adaptation ever since Antoine Galland issued his French translation in twelve volumes at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Its stories and orientalized setting have been used by novelists from Fielding to Dickens to Joyce. Cinema was quick to follow, from its earliest days. In 1905, Méliès made a film with the title The Palace of the Thousand and One Nights. Significantly, Méliès invented his own story. What he wanted in front of the camera was the vision of the Orient that the tales had done so much to create.
When Pier Paolo Pasolini started his Trilogy of Life with Boccaccio and Chaucer, he was using two of the founding texts of Western European culture. In both cases, a great author pulled together stories from a variety of classical and popular sources (including, interestingly enough, earlier collections of The Thousand and One Nights) and, in doing so, helped to establish the claims of the vulgar languages Italian and English over the then dominant Latin. Pasolini here was working in the classic European tradition of authorship, and perhaps unsurprisingly, he figures in both of the first two films as the author—a painter in The Decameron (1971) and a writer in The Canterbury Tales (1972).
In turning to The Thousand and One Nights, a series of tales with no recognized author, Pasolini was going further into the past and more deliberately into the present (his 1974 film would be released as Arabian Nights in the U.S.). While previous European adaptations had opted for an orientalized Other, Pasolini’s aim was to find a contemporary world that promised a common past. He would now search for his vision of a precommodified culture not in the beginnings of modern Europe and the present-day lumpen proletariat but in more distant times and places and in the contemporary third world, creating his most exultant vision of simple sex outside of commodity exchange. (To this day, scholars are uncertain whether the original tales are Indian or Persian, or how far back they go in the history of civilizations five thousand years older than Western Europe’s, although there is some consensus that the first collection was made in ninth-century Baghdad and a second, more influential one in twelfth-century Egypt.) The opening scene, in which the slave Zummurud chooses her master, Nur ed Din, promises this brave old world.
Pasolini abandons the famous framing device in which Scheherazade delays her death by each night beginning a story that so enthralls her murderous king that he postpones her execution until the next day. However, Pasolini’s final film of the trilogy has both a looser and a tighter narrative structure than the previous two. Tighter because the love story of Zumurrud and Nur ed Din provides a beginning and an end to the story we watch. Looser because, within that structure, the fluidity of the narration is even more marked, as the film effortlessly glides from story to story.
The unity of the film is provided less by its narrative, however, than by its architectural settings and by its emphasis on polymorphous and joyful sex. Pasolini shot the film mute, across an arc of countries, from Yemen to Nepal (also, perhaps, the arc of the original stories), working with a minimal crew and often operating the camera himself. The dressing of the sets was usually confined to no more than the removal of twentieth-century rubbish from cities thousands of years old. It is the cityscapes that provide the most abiding memories of the film—a use of architecture to summon into being a precapitalist world in which consumerism does not exist. This world is lent credence by the huge number of nonprofessional actors who throng the screen.
Even more than in its two predecessors in the trilogy, Arabian Nights glories in beautiful young bodies disrobing for the most innocent of sexual encounters. In making his choice of the few stories from the myriad that make up The Thousand and One Nights, Pasolini ignored the obvious ones, like that of Aladdin and his lamp, and concentrated almost exclusively on the erotic. Those he chose he adhered to closely, both for plot and dialogue. Where he did make changes, it was to emphasize sex and downplay violence. Thus, in the original tale of Nur ed Din, it is an old woman who directs him to his lost Zumurrud, with no mention of sex. In Pasolini’s film, Nur ed Din can’t make a move on his quest for his lost love without encountering young women determined to enjoy his beautiful body. Conversely, the unbelievably gruesome tortures that Zumurrud imposes on her former persecutors are replaced on-screen by the least violent crucifixions ever filmed.
Arabian Nights has been accused, with some justice, of both orientalism and exoticism, but these accusations miss the point of this most deeply felt fantasy of a world in which sexuality is a matter of taste rather than identity. Toward the end of the film, as Nur ed Din is led off to be prepared to meet the king, one of the men who has been eating with him says, “Our king may well prefer melons to plums”; another replies, “I’d have that boy too, my friends!” In an earlier sequence, as an old man contemplates the pleasures of homosexual sex, he muses on choosing between “two desires: one for the minaret of Baghdad, the other for the land of the two mosques.”
If Pasolini does not appear in the film, it is nevertheless easy to read it as the most autobiographical of the trilogy. At its center, we find perhaps the most coherently told story in any of the three films, the one in which Ninetto Davoli plays the role of Aziz, who abandons his wife-to-be, Aziza, on the day of their wedding and falls in love with another woman. Aziza faithfully advises Aziz on how to win his new love and then dies of a broken heart. Davoli had been a constant in Pasolini’s films from The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), his cheeky adolescent face instantly recognizable. Here, however, he is no adolescent but a young man, who had recently broken Pasolini’s heart by deciding to marry, leaving the director, with whom he had lived for ten years. It is difficult not to read this central story as an allegory of Pasolini’s own situation. If this reading is right, then the very end of the film, with its sweetest of reconciliations between Zumurrud and Nur ed Din, may have had more bitterness for the author than it does for the spectator.
The epigraph of the film, which is also spoken toward the end, is that “truth lies not in one dream but in many.” Il fiore delle mille e una notte (The Flower of the Thousand and One Nights), the film’s original title, is the most dreamlike of a trilogy that is a dream of the past. Pasolini now awoke into the nightmare of the contemporary world and commenced work on Salò.
Colin MacCabe is Distinguished Professor of English and Film at the University of Pittsburgh. He recently coedited the collection True to the Spirit: Film Adaptation and the Question of Fidelity (Oxford University Press).