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The Saragossa Manuscript

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The Saragossa Manuscript
cast: Zbigniew Cybulski, Iga Cembrzynska, Elzbieta Czyzewska, Gustaw Holoubek, and Stanislaw Igar

director: Wojciech Has

180 minutes (15) 1965
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Mr Bongo DVD Region 2 retail
[released 7 April]

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
Labyrinthine, hallucinatory, obscure and fantastical, The Saragossa Manuscript (aka: Rekopis znaleziony w Saragossie) first saw light of day as a huge novel written by the Polish writer Jan Potocki, who aptly committed suicide months after finishing such a troubling magnum opus. Influenced perhaps by such works as The Canterbury Tales, Don Quixote, and The Arabian Nights, his book 'The Manuscript Found In Saragossa' is seen as one of the monuments of 19th century European literary culture. In recent years arguably it has influenced such writers as John Barth and Robert Irwin (The Arabian Nightmare for instance). A baroque work, full of stories, of stories within stories, and again stories within stories within stories, featuring gypsies, Moors, scientists, occultists, lesbian princesses, the spirits of hanged men, the Wandering Jew and etc, with characters interchanging and reappearing in different guises, Potocki's book was never going to be an easy translation to screen, although it cried out for the attempt.

The task was taken up in 1965by director Wojciech Has and writer Tadeusz Kwiatkowski, and the results in his original cut ran to over three hours. Perhaps the 1960s was the right time for a project that featured such a kaleidoscopic and mind-expanding view of existence, for it struck a chord with a prospective hippie audience and others who appreciated its particular vision. It was certainly one of director Luis Bunuel's favourites; one can readily see the Spanish master responding to the surreal, dream like elements that thread through the film. Later, times moved on and it became harder to see, one of the "lost 1960s' movies 'trips'," and suffered from a further edit which lopped off well over half an hour - attempting the impossible task of reducing Saragossa's rich tapestry to a tidy rug.

Its reputation lived on however; a word of mouth cult, transmitted via devotees like The Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia who, just before his death, gave money to complete a restoration - an eagerly awaited process aided by Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, which finally prompted the reissue in 1999 of the fuller version.

Seen today, and belatedly issued in the UK, The Saragossa Manuscript is a remarkable discovery, one that any serious cinephile should experience at least once. Infuriating and exhilarating in equal measure, Has' film (a director whose other work remains inconveniently unavailable for comparison to this present tour-de-force) is both rich and confusing, and invites several viewings to decipher its intertwined, meaningful narrative, whilst also alienating some of those who discover less than they imagine once they make the effort.

The story concerns one Alphonse von Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski - an actor more familiar to some perhaps from Wadja's films like Ashes And Diamonds) and his attempts to travel through the Sierra Morena to Madrid in the 18th century: a milieu redolent, at first, of the dashing bawdry of Tom Jones but which soon blazes a complex metaphysical path of its own. His story is found by a Belgian officer in the embattled Spanish town of Saragossa, in the form of a manuscript with alluring pictures, left in an abandoned house. Von Worden, it turns out was this discoverer's grandfather, it's his thwarted attempts at making progress, and the confusing diversions which interrupt the way, as well as their final effects upon him, that make up the protracted story which follows.

The Saragossa Manuscript falls into to two parts, set over five days, both of which include von Worden (the second half less so) who is frequently just as disorientated as the viewer as the narrative unfolds. The first part centres largely around a haunted inn, where von Worden is seduced by a pair of alluring Moorish princesses, confronted by the demonic ghosts of hanged men, lectured by a hermit and his Igor-like assistant, captured outside by the Inquisition and so on... usually incidents concluding with our unlucky hero disappointed, left to awake next morning chastened but still unlearned at the foot of the gallows.

One of the most interesting things about the film is that, although days are shown passing in regular fashion, von Worden's experiences blur and conflate time into one disorientating experience, so that the passing of hours eventually has no meaning. Instead the audience is confronted with a circular narrative and narratives therein, unfolding like a series of repeatedly opened Russian dolls. How transient life and ambition can be we realise; and how little we really understand about the world we are in, ultimately presented here as a mirror of deception, rather than a veil of truth.

Action in the slightly longer part two settles down a suspiciously cabalistic manor and a vaguely Faustian sanctum, which shortly accommodates story telling gypsies, perhaps those after all to whom the incompetent Inquisition seen earlier ought be better directed. The events told here are more related to love and honour than before, being largely recollections of events in Madrid, but which reach new convolutions as each new character in a yarn has a further account to add to the already swelling narrative flow. Clearly to be seen in the light of the themes of sic transit gloria of the first part, the semi-farcical love trysts of part two seem less weighty and morally significant, although by the end of the film its clear that the effects upon the individual of a final connectiveness cannot be avoided.

As suggested above, The Saragossa Manuscript suggests a lot and at length about what's real and which is a dream, and then of taking life as a necessary mixture of both. The transience of human concerns, and an ultimate, underlying interconnnectedness calls into account the foundations of human reason. Whether or not such topics are given justice, even in the full three hours of screen time, and in a narrative some have seen as more confusing than deeply profound is another matter. As some critics have noticed, there's a sardonic air to Has' movie which detracts from the seriousness of it all, and which allows the film's creators a detachment from their subject matter.

Such a wholly modern interjection of tone is distinct from the original. Cybulski's hero is a man who rarely, if ever, learns the lessons he is so grievously taught, even while they are repeated to him in different ways. This while the semi-farcical, if complicated, love interests of the second part generally reflect a bawdy ignorance of greater matters, rather than insisting upon their inevitable presence. (Interestingly, having said that, this adaptation actually finishes on a darker note than the novel, where von Worden is rewarded at the end, presumably having been successfully initiated into life's mysteries).

But one can see why the film continues to attract admirers; shot in widescreen black and white, frequently making use of a memorably stone-broken, skull-littered, undulating landscape (the uncertain geographies of which echo the manifest internal confusions of von Worden) with bleached bone-coloured rocks, claustrophobic inns and the litter of the charnel house, the first half in particular is especially striking. The director also favours slow tracking movements through his cluttered landscapes. Perhaps these suggest the journey of an objective observer, who eventually hopes to cut through complexity to a revelation, just as the camera crawls through visual confusion to find its final, explicable, subject.

The DVD release of Saragossa Manuscript seems identical to a cheap import I bought a year or two ago, which is watchable if grainy, a quality no doubt down to the source (the director had the only remaining full length cut in existence). There's a stills gallery and isolated score and, apparently a booklet, which gives the interested viewer a structured guide to the work's narrative intricacies. With all its faults and idiosyncrasies, the film can be recommended as being very much one of a kind, and which has fervent admirers. If nothing else you will share van Worden's confusion at the unpredictability of living. And perhaps it's ultimately better just to enjoy the ride than worry too much about where it is all going.

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