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Saragossa Manuscript, The

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Mr Bongo
Art House
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Wojciech Has
Zbigniew Cybulski
Elżbieta Czyżewska
Gustaw Holoubek
Krzysztof Litwin
Zdzislaw Maklakiewicz
Bottom Line: 
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“The Saragossa Manuscript” combines timeless storytelling techniques and narrative traditions evinced by The Decameron,The Canterbury Tales and the modern novel form as we know it today (which was largely invented in the early 17th century by Spanish poet and playwright Cervantes), with artistic and philosophical ideas dating from the 1920s developed by the Surrealists, which characterised dreams as the residue of the unconscious at play when freed from the constraints imposed by the rational mind and morality. Fitting then that Polish auteur Wojciech Has’s three-hour film version of Count Jan Potocki’s fantastical shaggy dog tale of a novel (written between 1805 and 1815) makes such a fine job of capturing the qualities and textures of both ideas through its vivid cinematic conjuration of a parched and rocky, death-haunted Spanish landscape that becomes an imaginative repository for dream and fantasy, nominally set during the Napoleonic Wars but seemingly breaking anchor with any one clearly identifiable  moment in history as the film progresses to become home to a sprawling cast of exotic, colourful characters who emerge from a hallucinatory, dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream structure, that is all the while playing mischievous host to an equally recursive and complex story-inside-story nesting of tall tales. Screenwriter Tadeusz Kwiatkowski boils down the novel’s hundred-odd separate narratives into a manageable but still intricate web of interconnecting adventures and tales spanning decades; and with its mind-expanding melding of fantasy, adventure, romance and the supernatural, this movie far outdoes, in its splendid poetic phantasmagoria, anything even Spanish surrealist director Luis Bunuel managed to achieve with “The Milky Way” or “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” -- two films of his that mimic some of the looping structural design exhibited throughout Has’s interpretation of Potocki’s epic novel.  

Wojciech Has sprang to prominence as a film director during the late ‘50s after being appointed a professor in the director’s department at Poland’s prestigious National Film Studio in Łódź during a period of liberalisation for the country’s political culture that saw the Polish Film School reach the zenith of its international acclaim. But his work always remained distinct from that of most of his contemporaries due to its distinct lack of engagement with historical themes centring on the exploration of Polish identity then dominating the films of those in the movement who were being influenced at the time by the Neorealist school then transforming Italy’s postwar cinema. Such cinema took advantage of the liberal climate at home to explore the country’s war-time legacy through film, but Polish critics recognised Has’s debt to surrealism early on, noting how his films existed like ‘hermetically sealed’ confabulations in their own self-contained mythical worlds, more influenced by the surrealist painting that lent them their very particular, visually distinctive tone than by any socially aware concerns. “The Saragossa Manuscript” certainly conforms to such a characterisation, and was highly regarded not just by Bunuel (who cited both novel and film as favourite works of his) but also by the North American counter-cultural movement of the 1960s after the film became one of only a handful of Has’s works to receive widespread exhibition outside of Poland. The Californian potheads and Hippies of the 1960s found common ground with its trippy, light-hearted style, its bawdy humour and its ‘doors of perception-like’ philosophy, in which the ostensible hero of the tale is compelled to imbibe various potions throughput the film that seem to open gateways to alternate realities, each existing one inside the other, until any clearly definable demarcation barrier between what counts as a dream, external reality, history or fictional tale, is done away with completely.

In fact, Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia was instrumental in reviving the film’s availability in the late-nineties, providing funds that kick-started the re-discovery and restoration of the full-length three hour director's cut; important work that was continued and eventually completed after Garcia’s death by Martin Scorsese. The film had previously mainly only been known outside of Poland in heavily edited three-and-a-half or two-hour versions, but eventually found its way to DVD uncut in 2001. The release of this UK Blu-ray edition from Mr Bongo marks another important milestone in the film’s cultural journey of dissemination, giving us a digitally enhanced high definition print that reveals, with pleasing, crystal clear clarity, the full majesty of cinematographer Mieczyslaw Jahoda’s Dyaliscope (the French Cinemascope) monochrome compositions, which initially appear to be stamped with the mark of a realist historical aesthetic as the film opens on a battle-scarred Spanish town square at some point in or around the year 1780. Throughout the movie Has likes to dwell on bustling, extras-crammed zones of action framed in far off wide shot, allowing the camera to slowly track sideways along meticulously composed and highly choreographed scenes of busy historical tableaux. Many of the stories repeatedly return to the same locations again and again -- be it the town square of the opening frame story; a gallows-topped hillside in the Sierra Morena Mountains; a haunted inn with its disappearing secret caverns; or an enchanted Gothic castle -- imbuing the film with a peculiarly unique quality in which one feels one's self to be plunging down a rabbit hole of ever-expanding fantastical possibilities in a multitude of historical eras, while apparently never moving from the constantly recurring handful of identical settings. The manuscript of the title is a large and ancient leather-bound illustrated volume discovered in a dusty abandoned inn at the start of the movie by two soldiers on opposite sides of the same battle for control of the Spanish town of Saragossa. As they become engrossed in its densely packed pages, to the exclusion of the slaughter going on beyond the inn’s walls, one of the soldiers realises that the book is actually a record of the exploits of his own grandfather -- a Dutch captain of the guard called Alfonso van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski). In fact, the volume ostensibly seems to be the story of van Worden’s ill-fated attempt, fifty years earlier, to reach Madrid via the shortest route through the Sierra Morena Mountains …

The Captain’s efforts are soon stymied by a series of digressions involving possible supernatural encounters, obscure plots and strange conspiracies, possibly with the aim of testing van Worden’s resolve for some task as yet unfathomable, that involves a sprawling cast of diverse characters, including a one-eyed possessed beggar, a bearded hermit, a Cabalist and his beautiful sister, a Sheik and various military adventurers and bankers who appear alongside two Moorish princesses, an itinerant philosopher/mathematician and an exotic gypsy thief. Many of these characters also have stories to tell, and many of these stories involve other characters who in turn have their own tales which soon cross fertilise with each-other so that one story is later continued by a previously heard of character who has latterly appeared in someone else’s story, which itself is being told by yet another, who … well, trying to unravel the complex levels of narrative soon becomes a quite hopeless task! At one point the manuscript supposedly housing all this mischief itself enters the tale to create even more head-spinning, self-referential postmodern narrative convolutions: the mysterious cabalist who takes van Worden and his associate Don Pedro Velasquez (Gustaw Holoubek) back to his castle come the mid-point of the film chastises his sister there for negligently leaving the book where it is visible on a lectern in the castle library, claiming that if van Worden were to see it there, everything that follows would make no sense!

As wide-ranging as these sometimes  jovial, sometimes  magical tales involving multiple romantic intrigues, supernatural enchantment and torture by the inquisition might seem, the same themes reoccur throughout them all: father and son relationships (or those involving surrogate figures of authority who take the place of fathers) feature heavily throughout most of the tales and possible dream sequences that bamboozle an increasingly confused van Worden and the people he meets on his journey; and the Freudian association of sex and death and religion is also a constant as van Worden dodges both Christian inquisitors and vengeful Sheiks alike while semi-naked Muslim princesses tempt him (claiming he is duty bound to help continue their line because of a buried ancestral connection with their ancient Moorish family) using sleeping potions that are to be drunk from a hollowed-out skull that give cause for the Captain to repeatedly awake next morning alongside the rotting corpses of the same two bandits left hanging at an abandoned gallows. A memorable score by Krzysztof Penderecki (the first time the composer's music was ever used on a film) is used to provide an ideal accompaniment to Wojciech Has’s intricate yet breezy historical adventure-cum-surrealist whimsy. The Blu-ray presentation here is exemplary in picture quality, although there are no contextualising extras to help the viewer unravel the film's exquisite puzzle-piece structure.

Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!

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