Home #Hwoodtimes Pasolini’s ARABIAN NIGHTS: Sex and Desire in Medieval Arabic Story-Telling

Pasolini’s ARABIAN NIGHTS: Sex and Desire in Medieval Arabic Story-Telling

By Jim Gilles

Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 3/13/22 – Screening at the Motion Picture Academy Museum on March 11 was Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Arabian Nights (Il fiore delle mille e una notte, Italy, 1974), his film adaptation of the 16 tales from the ancient Arabic anthology of One Thousand and One Nights. The Academy Museum has co-sponsored this film with Cinecitta`as part of a retrospective of the films of Pasolini – in a series that concludes on March 12 with Pasolini’s Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom (1975). The Academy Museum has co-sponsored this film with Cinecitt`as part of a retrospective of the films of Pasolini – in a series that concludes on March 12 with Pasolini’s Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom 1975). The lead was played by young Franco Merli who was discovered working at a gas station for this film by Pasolini. The film is an adaptation of several stories within the original collection but they are presented out of order and without the Scheherazade, Dunyazad and King Shahriyar frame story. The film contains abundant nudity (and frontal male shots), sex, and slapstick humor. It preserves the eroticism and the story within a story structure of Arabian Nights and is surprisingly faithful to the original tales.

Piero Paolo Pasolini shooting his film in the Jameh Mosque in Esfahan, Iran

At the center is the story of Nur-ed-Din (Franco Merli), a “naif” who purchases a slave girl, Zumurrud (Ines Pellegrini). The two fall in love, but Zumurrud is kidnapped soon after. She escapes her captors and, disguised as a man, ultimately becomes king of an exotic land. With this film, Pasolini intended to make a film of Arabian Nights based on his “memory of it as a boy.” In preparation for the film, Pasolini re-read the One Thousand and One with a more critical lens and chose only the stories that he felt were the most “beautiful” and also with a focus on sex, desire, and the forces of fate. The original script written by Pasolini was very different from what appears in the final film, which was rearranged to make the story of Nur-ed-Din and Zumurud the central tale.

Nur-ed-Din (Franco Merli) is undressed by his new slave Zumurrud

The main story concerns an innocent young man, Nur-ed-Din (Franco Merli), who comes to fall in love with a beautiful slave girl, Zumurrud (Ines Pelligrini), who selected him as her master. After a foolish error of his causes her to be abducted, he travels in search of her. Meanwhile, Zumurrud manages to escape and, disguised as a man, comes to a far-away kingdom where she becomes king. Various other travellers recount their own tragic and romantic experiences, including a young man Aziz (Ninetto Davoli) who becomes enraptured by a mysterious woman on his wedding day, and a man who is determined to free a woman from a demon or djinn (Franco Citti). Interwoven are Nur-e-Din’s continuing search for Zumurrud and his (mostly erotic) adventures. In the end, he arrives at the far-away kingdom and is reunited with Zumurrud.

Prince Yunan (Salvatore Sapienza) meets the DJinn or Demon (Franco Citti)

In the famous opening scene, the slave girl Zumurrud (Ines Pellegrini) is being sold in the marketplace. Her present owner allowed her to choose her new master. Man after man offers to buy her but she refuses. An older man offers to buy her but she laughs and insults his erectile dysfunction, she spots the youth Nur-ed-Din (Franco Merli) and promises to be his slave. She slips the money of 1,000 dinars for her purchase into his pocket. After the purchase, they go back to Nur-ed-Din’s home and make love.

Mysterious Budur who gives symbolic gestures to Aziz about meeting her

Zumurrud tells her first story-within-the-story about the bisexual poet Sium from Ethioipia of the royal court. (This segment is based on the poetry of the homosexual Arabic poet Abu Nuwaw.) The king spots a woman bathing naked and is sad he has to leave. He asks Sium to compose a poem on the spot about the experience.

Prince Yunnan (Salvatore Sapienza) shipwrecked on Magnetic Island shoots the armored man

Afterwards, Sium goes into the town where he propositions three boys for sex. Later, the king and the woman he saw bathing earlier find two youths, a boy and a girl, and drug them with potions. They leave them asleep naked in the same tent on separate cots. They make a bet that whichever of the pair falls in love is the inferior one, as the weaker one falls in love with the beautiful. In turn, they wake both the boy and the girl separately to observe their exhibit of sexual desire on each other. The contest is a tie, because it seems that both the boy and girl are equally motivated for sex. In the end, Sium and the woman admit there is no clear winner and they leave.

Nur-ed-Din (Franco Merli) with one of his sisters in the bathing pool

Zumurrud is finished with her story and has completed a tapestry. She tells Nur-ed-Din to sell it in the market to anyone except a blue-eyed European man. Nur-ed-Din goes to the market and falls for the blue-eyed man’s high offer. The man follows Nur-ed-Din back to his home and asks to share food. He drugs Nur-ed-Din with a doctored banana and steals Zumurrud when he is asleep. The blue-eyed man brings Zumurrud to the old man from the marketplace, and he beats her for having mocked him.

Aziz (Ninetto Davoli) with bow and arrow, aiming a dildo into the vagina of Budur

Nur-ed-Din is very distressed when he awakens. A female stranger offers to help him (for the price of sex). She discovers where Zumurrud is and tells Nur-e-din to wait outside the old man’s gate when he is asleep. Zumurrud will jump over the wall and abscond with him. He waits deep into the night but falls asleep. A passing Kurdish youth steals his money and his turban. Zumurrud jumps over the wall and mistakes the Kurd for Nur-ed-Din. The Kurd brings her back to his hideout, where he says his friends will gang rape her. She is chained up but manages to escape the next day and leaves into the desert disguised as a soldier.

Zumurrud rides through the desert and arrives outside a city guarded by several soldiers and a crowd of people. She claims to be a soldier named Wardan. The people, believing her to be a man, tell her that after the king passes without an heir, their tradition is to crown the first traveler who comes to their city. She is also given a bride (played by a young Iranian boy from the hotel in Esfahan.) On her wedding night, Zumurrud reveals her secret to the bride. The bride promises to keep her secret. The European man and the Kurd travel to the city and are summarily executed on Wardan’s orders. The people they were eating with mistakenly believe this is punishment for stealing a handful of their rice.

Meanwhile, Dur-ed-Din wanders around the city looking for his lost Zamurrud. He is mistaken for a porter by a veiled woman, who hires him to collect various foods and dishes from the market to bring home for her and her two sisters. They return home, set the table and begin reading. In the story-within-the-story, Princess Dunya dreams about a female dove helping her male counterpart fly free from a net. The female is then caught in a net and the male flies off alone. She takes the meaning of this dream as the indelity of men and vows to never marry. Then follows a story-within-a-story-within-a-story. Dunya picks up a book and reads a story.

Then we enter the tale of Aziz and Aziza. Aziz (Ninetto Davoli) is telling his friend, Prince Tagi (Francesco Paolo Governale), about his life, as he is weeping and shows Tagi a beautiful small tapestry that he has in his possession. In order to explain the origin of the tapestry, he launches into his complex tale. He was set to be married to his cousin Aziza, but on the wedding day, he is distracted by a mysterious woman he meets by chance, when he sits under her window. The woman communicates to him in scant gestures. He is smitten with this woman and goes to Aziza to figure out what to do. Aziza helps decode the messages and tells him how to reply and what poetry to recite. After a rough start, the woman responds to Aziz who looks forward to their meeting in a tent outside the city.

Love is my Master: Aziz goes to the tent and drinks some wine which puts him to sleep. The woman leaves a sign that she will murder him if he does something so careless again. He goes back and abstains from eating this time. The woman named Budur (Luigiana Rocchi) comes and they make love. Aziz recites the poetry Aziza told him to. He returns home and Aziza is on the roof, crushed with loneliness but Aziz does not seem to care. He only wants Budur. Aziza gives him more poetry to recite. Aziz returns to Budur and after they sleep together, he shoots an arrow with a dildo into her vagina in a highly symbolic scene. Aziz goes home to rest while Aziza cries again. Aziz goes to Budur the next day and recites more poetry but she scolds him. She says the meaning of the poem is that the girl who gave it loved him and has committed suicide. She tells him to go to her grave. He goes and his mother tells him to mourn faithfully but he clearly has little interest in this.

Weep as you made her weep: Aziz returns to Budur the next day but she is very distraught. She gives him a large sum of money and tells him to erect a monument in Aziza’s honor, but he spends all the money on alcohol. After leaving the bar, he is kidnapped by a young woman and her hired thugs. The woman orders him to marry her or Budur, whom he was visiting, will kill him. He spends a year with her and fathers a child but he leaves one day on the pretext of visiting his mother. He instead goes to see Budur, who is sitting outside her tent. He asks why she is sitting alone. She responds she has sat alone for one year, not moving an inch, waiting for him. When Aziz tells her he is married and has a child now, Budur tells him he is useless to her now.

Then Budur calls some other women and they surround him with knives. He yells out the last poem Aziza gave him and they are forced to halt. Budur says she won’t kill him and that Aziza has saved him this time but that he will not leave unharmed. She ties a rope around his genitalia and castrates him. Aziz returns to his mother who gives him a message from the deceased Aziza. A tapestry he believed was made by Budur was actually made by a woman named Princess Dunya. Prince Tagi hears all this and is moved. He wants to meet Dunya as he has fallen in love with her without even meeting her.

So Aziz and Prince Tagi travel to Dunya’s city (actually Sana, Yemen), where she has walled herself off in her palace. They ask the gardener for a tour and he obliges. He says Dunya had a dream about a dove that was betrayed by her male counterpart and has vowed to have nothing to do with men. The two want to meet her under the guise of posing as painters. They plan on hiring two other painters to help them with this disguise. The two are offered seven, eight and even 9 dinars but they refuse to work for anything below one dinar. The men are painting and working on a beautiful ceiling mosaic in the palace.

Aziz’s friend Prince Tagi asks the first artisan what his story is and he replies that he was once a prince named Shazmah (Alberto Argentino) who managed to survive a battle by covering himself in a corpse’s blood and pretending to be one of the dead. After the enemy leaves, he runs off to a new city to hide. He asks for work and says he knows a lot about philosophy, science, astronomy, medicine and law. The man tells him this is useless to him and the prince will work cutting wood.

And so, we launch into the story of the Demon’s revenge, taken from the second dervish’s tale from Nights 12 and 13 of the Arabian Nights. This Prince Shahzmah goes out to cut wood and accidentally finds a trap door in the ground near a tree. He walks down the stairs and finds a beautiful girl trapped underground by a Djinn or demon. She tells him that the djinn only comes once every ten days or when she slaps the golden sign above her bed that tells him that she needs him. The prince sleeps with her and drinks heavily. In his drunken stupor and against her wishes, he hits the golden sign in order to kill the djinn. The prince immediately regrets this and leaves without his shoes before the djinn arrives. The girl tries to explain things to the jinn, that it was only an accident but the djinn realizes she was sleeping with someone when he spies the prince’s shoes.

The Demon or Djinn (Franco Citti) goes out searching for the prince by asking people if they know who the shoes belong to and someone replies yes much to the djinn’s happiness. The djinn takes the prince back to the cave and attempts to make the prince kill the girl with a sword but he refuses. He also asks the girl to kill the prince but she refuses. Angered and realizing neither will do it, the djinn then chops the girl into pieces himself and takes the prince away through the air to exact his revenge.

The djinn tells him that he will not kill him but will transform him into a monkey as punishment for what he has done. The monkey is then picked up by travelers on a ship on their way from Oman to India, though it is unknown to them that he was once a man. The travelers are amazed when the monkey takes a paper and brush from them and writes down poetry in beautiful calligraphy. The travelers land at port and go to the king with the paper. The king asks to find whoever wrote such beautiful poetry and throw him a celebration. The people throw a celebration for the monkey. The monkey is adorned with robes and is carried on a litter to the king’s surprise and brought to his palace (which is actually the royal palace of Bhaktapur, Nepal). The king’s daughter who is knowledgeable of sorcery. She understands immediately that the monkey was once a man and transforms him back into a Prince, killing herself in the process.

The next tale takes place in the Far East of the medieval Islamic world (where Pasolini used Kathmandu and other cities in Nepal as locations). Prince Yunan (Salvatore Sapienza) lives in contentment with his father, the King (played by a local Nepalese actor). Yunan decides to go on a voyage to islands within his kingdom but the ship is blown off course in a storm. He asks the crew why they are crying and they tell him there is an island with a “magnetic mountain” that they are approaching. It will pull all the nails out of their ship and send them to their deaths among the rocks. The ship crashes as they explain but Yunan survives. He hears a voice telling him to grab a bow and arrow buried under the sand and shoot the stone knight statue bearing the cursed talisman that is planted on the peak of the island. He shoots it as he is told and the entire island collapses into the sea. Yunan survives though and drifts among the waves with a piece of wood from his destroyed ship.

Chamber in the sand: Yunan drifts to another island where he sees a ship disembarking. He runs but it is too late to be rescued. He finds a chamber on the island and goes inside to find a young boy. The young boy tells him that he is the son of a king and it was foretold by a soothsayer that on that very day he would be killed by a prince named Yunan and so his father took him to the remote island and built a chamber to keep him in until the dangerous time passed. Yunan hears this and tells him he will not hurt him but will only protect him. They bathe together (in a seemingly homoerotic way) and then go to sleep together. But during his sleep, Yunan begins sleepwalking and grabs a knife. He stabs the boy with the knife, killing him. (The ending of this story is changed from in the book where the prince accidentally kills the boy while trying to cut a lemon). Rescued by his father, the Indian ruler, Prince Yunan is taken back to his city and the royal palace, but he is no longer interested in royal wealth or status. He dons the clothes of a mendicant beggar (like a Buddhist monk) and wanders off.

The wandering theme having been re-introduced, we return to our lead character Nur-ed-Din (Franco Merli) who we see bathing naked with three sisters who are naked. They are a bit drunk and messing around with each other. One by one, the women ask Nur-ed-Din what their vaginas are called. He answers but they keep telling him he’s got the wrong names. The right names are meadowed grass, sweet pomegranates, and the Inn of Good Food. He then asks them what the name of his penis is and each provides an answer though he says they are incorrect. Its name is “the donkey which grazes perfumed meadowed grass, eats peeled sweet pomegranates and spends the night in the Inn of Good Food.” He then wakes up the next morning on the terrace outside the women’s house. He continues on his search for Zumurrud, wandering across deserts into Persia where he encounters a lion. Fearing his imminent death, Nur-ed-Din is surprised that the lion turns around and leads him to a nearby city.

Nur-ed-Din reaches the city where Zumurrud rules. He grabs a handful of rice from the bowl where people are eating and is taken away by royal guards to the king’s private chamber. Zumurrud (still in disguise) asks him for anal intercourse. He meekly accepts and pulls down his pants. She pulls off her disguise and reveals it was only a joke. They are reunited and they embrace. For all the sex and frontal male nudity, Pasolini’s Arabian Nights is charmingly romantic and a happy embrace of the promise of young love, which is generally heterosexual, although flirting with the edges of pederasty and homosexual desire.