Portugal in hard times. We begin in the Viana shipyards, empty but for former workers hanging around like ghosts as diembodied voices of the retrenched talk about their working lives, what their labour made and how little that seems to matter. A brief interlude in which the writer/director, Migueal Gomes, sits on a cold cafe table realising that the twin themes of the shipyard closure and the industrially proportioned local wasp plague don't quite gel. He flees with his crew in chase.
This is expectable from his previous feature Tabu which had much to say on his native Portugal's history as a coloniser and said it with great stylistic charm. But we are not here to smirk at quirk. Gomes wants the stories of the disaffected and disenfranchised to be heard, one after the other. Well, Godard already did that so the way to do it now is to place it against a kind of retelling of the Arabian Nights, a series of tales told by a woman to keep herself alive with the clever idea of leaving them unfinished to keep her potential despatcher at bay.
And that is what we get here. Anecdote after anecdote of productive lives weakened by economics and government austerity. The folk tales promised by the title do appear but it is in a kind of weave that forms frames for the more contemporary accounts. This blend of the fantastical and grim day-by-day doesn't always divert but the intention of giving the stories air and light is never less than sincere.
The problem is that almost all of these are told as tableaux, the focus is kept medium to wide, so that we are enduring rather than joining these folk in their hardship. I waited in my seat for the film to burst into the kind of cheeky panache Gomes showed in Tabu but each time it did, it fell back like a wave and tossed us into the surf again.
I struggled to maintain interest in this demanding show, falling into hypnogogic riffing every few minutes (not helped by the sonorous buzz coming from the guy in the row in front). Leaving the cinema, I was encased in a freezing rain which woke me up in seconds and, splashing my way home, I realised I had to rethink the resentment I had just been feeling while in front of this. I clung to the moments of flash, vowed to sympathise with the testimony of economic victims and frowned on planning to change my schedule, leaving the final two chapters for someone else. But, no, now I can't wait to see them. As droney as it got there yet was wonder.