The career of Australian director George Miller is very particular. He is recognized for being the author of Mad Max, the most important cyberpunk saga in the history of cinema (with the forgiveness of terminator, which degenerated irremediably). He is also the author of the delicious comedy The Eastwick Witches and the mighty drama A miracle for Lorenzo, as well as children’s tapes Happy Feet Y Babe: The little pig in the city. Interestingly, all of his films, most of them high-budget, were the product of his personal tastes and choices and not pressure from the big studios.
Now, this director who at the age of seventy showed youngsters how to make a real action movie with his own reboot of madmax, returns seven years later, to give us a heartfelt tribute to Arabian Nightsone of the greatest literary texts of all time.
once upon a time there was a genius is the adaptation of the collection of short stories The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye published by AS Byatt in 1994, the renowned author of such powerful and dark romantic fables as angels and insects Y Possession. In it, Tilda Swinton, fantastic as always, plays the role of a modern Scheherazade named Alithea Binnie, who tells us an endearing romantic story starring herself. Her character is a narratologist obsessed with the stories that are part of the history of humanity and who lives alone by her own choice and not due to the circumstances of fate. At least that is what she tells us.
Alithea arrives in Istanbul for a literary convention and stays at the prestigious Pera Palace hotel, in the same room where Agatha Christie wrote her novel Murder on the Orient Express. In a moment dedicated to tourism, the woman buys a glass bottle in the local market that, although it has bumps and imperfections, attracts her a lot of attention. Alithea takes the bottle to her room and when she is about to clean it, surprisingly a genie comes out of it, complete with pointed ears, similar to the character described in the story of Aladdin from the Arabian Nights (Idris Elba with the appearance of the genie of the thief of baghdad the classic 1940’s movie, but without the manic personality of the blue genie from the animated Disney movie).
The genie is willing to grant Alithea three wishes. But the woman is more curious about his story, rather than seeing her dreams come true. Thus, the equation stated in Arabian Nights is reversed and the genie ends up telling his story in four interspersed episodes, as if it were Scheherazade, while Alithea ends up updating the attentive sultan.
The four stories of the genius are fables filled with magic, love, hate, cruelty and eroticism, the same characteristics of the tales narrated by Scheherazade in Arabian Nights. The first is about the Queen of Sheba (Aamito Lagum) and King Solomon (Nicolas Mouawad); the second tells the tragic story of Gulten (Ece Yüksel), the concubine of Suleiman the Magnificent (Lachy Hulme), the son of Mustafa (Matteo Bocelli); the third is about Murad IV (Ogulcan Arman Uslu), the cruel and despotic sultan of the Ottoman empire and his brother Ibrahim (Jack Braddy); and the final story tells us the story of Zefir (Burcu Gölgedar), the wife of a Turkish merchant, obsessed with knowledge and who became a lover of genius. These stories are expertly told, charged with emotion and eloquence by Miller and co-writer Augusta Gore, and exquisitely photographed by veteran John Seale (a regular collaborator with Miller).
Alithea, like the sultan, falls madly in love with the charismatic narrator after hearing his stories. But beyond being a beautiful update of an archetypal story, once upon a time there was a genius it is a profound meditation on existence (life, love and death) and the fascination of human beings for telling and listening to stories. This is a much bigger gift than a simple rom-com with supernatural touches. But perhaps only a few will truly appreciate it.