The great American filmmaker Sam Fuller makes a cameo appearance in the Jean-Luc Godard film “Pierrot le Fou” (1966) and is asked by Jean-Paul Belmondo to explain what cinema is. In one word, he explains that a film is a conflict of feelings.
The new film “Three Thousand Years of Longing,” directed by George Miller, is a war zone. Take your pick! And, of course, it’s all about the feeling associated with the name. Alithea represses her longing because she plays with both prim and feisty traits by Tilda Swinton. In voiceover, she introduces herself as a “narratologist,” meaning somebody who studies stories. As a narratologist, she enjoys her independence and fulfilling work. She’s staying in the Agatha Christie room of the Pera Palace Hotel while in Istanbul for a conference. “She wrote Death on the Nile here,” Alithea is informed. The film will be about both emotion and storytelling, according to Alithea.
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Alithea fainted during a lecture after having a hallucination. We must inquire, later, whether it was a hallucination or an ancient and actual summons for her. She tries to scrub an ornamental bottle she got at an antique store off in her hotel room. She creates a genie, or djinn, and a hefty one at that—the sight of his enormous foot opening her bathroom door is something unusual to be sure—who, upon learning some English, gives Alithea the usual three wishes. The djinn, played by Idris Elba, is a tragic, comedic, strange, and affecting figure.
As for the desires: not so fast. Alithea, as a narratologist, understands that there is no such thing as a free lunch when it comes to djinns. It is famously unlucky to have one’s wishes granted by a genie, as these creatures are known for being tricksters. In narratives where people do get their wishes fulfilled, it typically goes wrong due to the wish-granter’s own foolishness or greed. The reason they’re trapped in bottles is because of their own doing, and so Alithea’s journey isn’t one of wish-fulfillment. Instead, it’s an interrogation.
The first story of the djinn sets the tone and pace for the rest of the film. He was the consort and teacher to the famed Queen of Sheba, until Solomon came along. The production design and CGI-driven phantasmagoria in this tale, featuring a self-playing lyre to augment the song of Solomon that seduces Sheba, is unlike anything you’ve seen before—not even Cecil B. DeMille’s creations can compare.
As it turns out, it’s always a woman who is to blame for the djinn’s imprisonment throughout history, but this isn’t a tale of misogyny disguised as a nesting doll. (It is loosely based on a novella by renowned British writer A.S. Byatt.) It’s more of a story about how love and hatred might drive one to do unusual things. It’s about the paradox of being human, our intrepid selves and our shadow selves. There’s a lot of human achievement, and there’s a lot of human atrocity. “Despite all the whiz-bang,” as the caption near the end of the piece points out, “we remain befuddled.”
Alithea slowly comes to terms with the fact that her life is lacking in love, which is more upsetting than she realized.
That doesn’t sound appealing. The movie isn’t bad. The djinn’s stories are chock-full of hair-raising violence and vivid landscapes of desire. A would-be ruler, a large and slow man, is kept in a room by his mother where he is given an endless amount of women to ogle. This episode is set up and shot with exaggerated joy by Miller—it builds upon the wet nurse scene in “Fury Road.”
After the mostly practical and in-camera effects of “Fury Road,” it’s interesting to see Miller return to a largely CGI mode, even though it shouldn’t come as a surprise given his work on films like “Babe: Pig in the City” and “Happy Feet.” The film is both eye-popping and surprising, unsettling due to his mastery and technique.
Some may be concerned that the film, according to Edward Said’s definition of “orientalism,” participates in “orientalism.” To put it another way, Western culture is molded after Eastern culture. Miller is very scrupulous in many respects. For instance, the ancient world that he depicts here is not artificially whitewashed through his casting choices (Lagum, who plays Sheba, is Ugandan and won the first season of Africa’s Next Top Model). However, just the notion of a Black Djinn and a white Englishwoman engaged in a battle of wits over real and fictional stories may be discordant to some. Is Miller overstepping his bounds as a creative artist or taking liberties? In my opinion, the latter is true. The director’s passion and creativity for the project is clear, and even though he is nearly 80, I believe this justifies his choices–if any justification were necessary.
George MillerAugusta GoreA.S. Byatt
Tilda SwintonIdris ElbaPia Thunderbolt