Before heading to the theater on Friday night to watch Three Thousand Years of Longing, I celebrated with my sister’s family and friends my niece’s birthday. We had pizza. We had cupcakes. We did all the things you expect of such occasions. I am perhaps making it sound a little perfunctory, but there is nothing vanilla about my niece except for the cupcakes. As the evening wound down, I was asked where I would be going next, and my update drew few surprises. Clearly, I often go to the movies. No one had heard of this week’s film, which was not unexpected given that they have family lives. This often precludes staying on top of the latest releases, unless one is truly dedicated to that sort of thing. I have more time for such dedication, hence The Legionnaire. Because we are coming from two different worlds, it made describing what I was about to see tricky. This is a case where the trailers are the best way of getting an idea of what is ahead than even prose could do. I was also somewhat pleasantly surprised. I figured I would be in for a strange two hours. It definitely had its peculiarities, and an unfortunate amount of grotesque, but a heart nonetheless.
Three Thousand Years of Longing is a movie about a genie in a bottle, called here a Djinn (Idris Elba), though they mean the same thing. Yet, the story is not told from his perspective. Instead, the first words we hear are those of Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton). Appropriately, she studies stories, and she is presenting her incredible events as a fairytale. It does not have the most Hans Christian Anderson of starts. She flies to Istanbul for a conference of other scholars like her, though we can tell that sometimes she lets her imagination get the better of her. After an eventful panel discussion, she wanders the market streets of the Turkish capital. In one of the smaller shops, a beautiful, blue and white glass bottle captures her attention, and she must have it. Later in her hotel room white cleaning the vessel, she inadvertently opens it and out comes the Djinn. As myth would tell us, and upon being convinced that the Djinn is who he says he is, he offers her three wishes. Alithea does not immediately give in to this temptation. As somebody who has studied many similar fables, she understands that they are usually cautionary. Despite the Djinn’s seemingly earnest insistence that he wants simply to grant her requests and return to the realm of his people, she is not so easily swayed. In order to prove that he is on the level, he begins unfolding the sequence of events that led to him being entrapped in the trinket she had recently purchased. The first part involves his love for the Biblical Queen of Sheba (Aamito Lagum). The rival for her affections is the equally Biblical King Solomon (Nicola Mouawad). Solomon essentially tricks the Djinn into a small metal flask, but we will talk more about this portrayal of King David’s son later. For now, I hope you noted the change in container material. At any rate, it gets deposited into the sea for thousands of years, only to be dredged back up fifteen hundred years later in Istanbul. This is not modern-day, but rather the city that served is the capital for the Ottoman Empire. Being lost at the bottom of the sea for so long, it is mistaken as a stone and set into the fortifications surrounding the palace. Eventually it is dislodged by a young woman named Gülten (Ece Yüksel), who has her eye on Mustafa (Matteo Bocelli). Mustafa is son and heir to Suleiman the Magnificent (Lachy Hulme), ruler of the Ottoman Empire. Gülten has none of these titles, but her encounter with Djinn allows her to wish for Mustafa to fall in love with her. This is against the Djinn’s advice, and palace machinations lead to Mustafa’s murder, with Gülten blaming the Djinn, and her leaving the wish granter her last request unasked. This is bad for the Djinn, essentially dematerializing him for the next 200 years and forcing him to wander the palace. When he is able to lure someone to his bottle, his desperation to be freed frightens the potentially lucky person and resulting in it being cast once more into the sea. I will get back to this portion of the narrative in a moment. The last stop before we get to modern times is again in Turkey, but this time in the nineteenth century. A young, dissatisfied bride named Zefir (Burcu Gölgedar) is given the Djinn’s bottle, which once more is dredged up from the sea. Zefir’s wish is for knowledge, while the Djinn falls in love with her. Her quest to learn the limits of the universe eventually leads to her despising the Djinn, and wishing that they had never met. The Djinn again is entrapped, this time in the vessel we first see, and we are up to date. Listening to these events unfold stirs something in the typically loner Alithea. Hence, she makes her first wish: that they be together. For a time, they live together as a couple, with the Djinn getting to see life as a human for an extended period of time. Unfortunately, it appears that going so long without granting wishes has an effect, and one day Alithea comes home to find a wasting away Djinn. She does the only thing she can think of to save the being whom she has come to love: she makes a wish for him to return to the realm of the Djinn. We close three years later, with her recounting all she had experienced, and the Djinn getting to return to spend some time with her.
With this review of Three Thousand Years of Longing, you are going to get the double barrel of Catholic commentary. One of the sections I glossed over is the period between Gülten and Zefir. It focuses on two brothers. The eldest is the future Murad IV (Kaan Guldur), sultan of the Ottoman Empire, and the other is his younger brother Ibrahim (Jack Braddy). Murad IV is warlike, and the worry is that his thirst for conquest will get him killed. Hence, they keep Ibrahim under lock and key. In his plush, fur lined prison he grows increasingly obese, and is given a harem of equally sized women. Now, there is nothing specifically wrong from a Catholic perspective with having a few extra pounds. The problem is the gluttony on full display. Gluttony is one of the seven cardinal sins, though you might know them as the “deadly sins.” They are breaks with God so egregious that they can cause almost irreparable damage to your relationship with God. I say “almost” because nothing is impossible with God. Given what Alithea says early on about the cautionary nature of stories about people getting wishes, one might be led to say that the film is speaking out against such excesses. To a degree it is, although none of it is the result of the Djinn’s wish granting. The biggest problem I have with the sequences is its grotesque profligacy. One does not need to see the images it presents here to get the idea. Ibrahim is not a sympathetic character. As such, seeing the number of nude, overweight women comes off as making fun of something of which, to me, should not be treated in this manner. Put simply, it is not Christ-like.
What this Catholic reviewer did appreciate about Three Thousand Years of Longing is Alithea’s reticence to make wishes without some discernment. This comes with a caveat. Her problem early on is that she believes too much in her solitude. She had been married once, and it does not appear that she processed it properly. This is symbolized by a scene where she puts her ex-husband’s stuff in a box that sits on a shelf in her basement. Instead, she turns inward, feeling like she can do everything on her own. Faith says the opposite, that nothing is possible without God. It would be inaccurate, and somewhat blasphemous, to call the Djinn God. Many would conflate what he does with what God does, like the sole function of the Almighty is to fulfill wishes. Yet, what links the Divine with the Djinn is that the wishes work best when they are your true heart’s desire. The problem with nearly everyone is that we do not know our hearts completely, and I am sure I can be counted among that company. The One who does understand our inner-most beings with an intimacy beyond our understanding. He knows this because that is where He resides. A great deal of our Faith lives is strengthening the connection between ourselves and God, which flows from within and without. This is all, in a sense, in the film, though not told in a Christian matter. That is what I am here to give.
I am not sure if I recommend Three Thousand Years of Longing. There is good in it. There is a lot of bad in it. I almost resorted to some clichéd phrase like, “but that is life, is it not?” There is nothing common about this film. What would have made my enjoyment of it more firm is if they would have taken out the chunk in the middle with Ibrahim. Each one of these stops in the Djinn’s timeline are meant to address some objection Alithea raises. Yet, the Djinn did not seem to have much agency through these times, which makes it voyeuristic. I think we could all do with less of that kind of content. Finally, why could we not have a Biblically accurate Solomon?