AKA REKOPIS ZNALEZIONY W SARAGOSSIE
RUNNING TIME: 176 min
AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY: 7TH SEPTEMBER, from MR BONGO
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
During a battle in the Aragonese town of Saragossa during the Napoleonic Wars, a Belgian officer retreats to the second floor of an inn. He finds a large book with drawings of two men hanging on a gallows and two women in a bed. An enemy officer tries to arrest him but ends up translating the book for him; the second officer recognises its author as his own grandfather, Alfonso van Warden, who was a captain in the Walloon Guard. A courageous and honest soldier, he was seeking the shortest route through the Sierra Morena to Madrid, in an area reputed to be inhabited by ghosts and/or demons, and found himself in a strange world of stories within stories…
Not being at all familiar with the work of Polish filmmaker Wojciech Has, and opting this time not to try and find out a bit about the film and let myself know what I’m in for before I watched it, I didn’t have a clue what The Saragossa Manuscript was going to be like, except that the three hour long, black and white, subtitled film was going to be rather odd. As I sit here writing this review and my mind is trying to comprehend what the hell I’ve just watched, I’m still not sure I have got a handle on it, and I like my offbeat stuff, but then what else would one really expect from a film that both David Lynch and Luis Bunuel described as their favourite? There were times I wasn’t sure if I was actually enjoying the film, times I felt lost in its extraordinarily complex storytelling [get up and make a cup of tea during this one without turning it off and you won’t have a clue what’s going on when you come back five minutes later], and times I couldn’t see what the point was, but after it finished, I knew that I’d seen something very unique and rather special, and I now want to go back and watch the thing again in a week or so, and if that’s not the sign of a fine film then I don’t know what is. No, The Saragossa Manuscript is not at all an ‘easy’ movie, but in the end it’s a very fulfilling one. Just leave any preconceptions of how a tale should be told at the door.
The film is based, probably rather loosely I imagine, on a huge novel written in 1815 called The Manuscript Found in Saragossa [R?kopis znaleziony w Saragossie], by Jan Potocki, a Pole living in France who committed suicide a year after the book, which initially ran into trouble due to its sexual elements, was published. If I’m wrong and the book is actually much like the film, then one wonders why any filmmaker would set himself the difficult task of adapting such a tome for the screen, but then Has already had a reputation as a very adventurous, even surrealist, filmmaker and he always tried to completely avoid the heavily political subjects which were the norm in Polish cinema of the time. The Polish-shot production was quite a hit in Eastern Europe countries, but the 167 min picture was cut to 147 min in the US and 125 min in the UK. I feel this would have fatally harmed the intricate nature of the film and caused it to make even less sense! It was The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, also a big public fan of the movie, who sponsored its restoration in 1997.
The opening credits made me chuckle, as dissonant scoring which integrates the tune Beethoven [not original to him] called Ode To Joy in his Ninth Symphony plays over somewhat grotesque cartoon-like illustrations which resemble those cut-out figures Terry Gilliam did in his animated bits for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, though it may not be entirely coincidental as I can see Terry adoring this film too. We then get thrown into what is obviously near the end of the Napoleonic War in Spain, and no time is wasted getting into matters. Our two officers, from opposing sides, soon find the manuscript of the title and one of them begins to read from it [though from what looks like around halfway through, which may or may not be important]. The book seems to be from the point of view of his grandfather Alfonso. The film flashes back and we now join Alfonso on his trek through the mountains, and a really powerful atmosphere of unease is created here by the simply stunning cinematography, the almost alien-like rock formations and the weird percussive noises on the soundtrack. It reminded me somewhat of some of the scenes in Picnic At Hanging Rock, though without the element of eroticism, though we certainly get eroticism soon after as Alfonso passes things such as the dead bodies of two bandits swinging from a gallows, and finds himself in a primitive inn. He’s lured into a secret lavish dining room by two sisters who want him to marry them. He partakes of a drink they give him and finds himself back in the desolate countryside, lying next to a heap of skulls and under the gallows. Were the women actually ghosts like people warned him about? Or was he dreaming? He doesn’t have much time to ponder this as he then meets a hermit priest who tells him his own tale about forbidden love [lengthy flashback here] and has more adventures in the area like being kidnapped by the Spanish Inquisition!
Though slightly repetitious, I found the first half of this film quite spellbinding and even a bit frightening. The uneasy feel is superbly achieved by sometimes quite subtle [though we still get an eye removal!] means and it all seems to proceed with a kind of dreamlike logic. Then Alfonso journeys to a town, and the second part [the film is openly divided into two parts and, while it’s not normally something I feel works well, viewing one part an hour or so of the film after the first part might be constructive] is primarily filled with the nested tales told by the leader of a band of gypsies who visit a castle. Frame story or tale-within-a-tale-within-a-tale only begins to describe the complexity, because some of the inner tales intertwine, so that later tales shed new light on earlier experiences recounted by other characters. You even get some characters appearing before they are properly “introduced” in another story, or several stories having the same resolution, though I missed why one character has a bloodied face in one scene. Maybe it’s not important. These stories, set in a lovely Spain of the imagination, tend to be less fantastical, lighter in nature [though the funniest bit for me was in the first half with a section set in a leaky castle] and often dealing with romance, like a guy who is encouraged by his wife to sleep with her sister, and another man whose romancing of a woman is constantly ruined by the presence of his friend. The supernatural takes a back seat and is even laughed at when a scary cry at night is proved to not be from a ghost or a demon. I missed the dark tone of the first half, though it does return towards the end for one of those wonderfully ambiguous conclusions where your interpretation will probably be different to mine.
I got rather disorientated in places during the second half of The Saragossa Manuscript, but the virtually geometric patterns of stories perhaps become a bit clearer, or at least the intent of them, if you know that Potocki was a serious Kabalist, the core notions being that the world is a story told within a story with an story and so on for ten or eleven layers until you have nothing as the origin, and that people move up in a specific way through the generators of each story world, ultimately reaching enlightenment [or not, if the case may be]. Interiors often seem to have strange symbols on the walls and of course a Kabalist is a major character in the first half and seems to be the wisest too. Elsewhere though the film seems to be attacking religion, especially Islam, something which would probably cause a furore if the film was made and released today. Many of the tales appear to be about human lust and greed, and therefore contain moral aspects, though there’s no sense of preaching. Even though I’m near the end of this review, I still haven’t worked out entirely what the film was really trying to say, and I suppose that’s a good thing.
Zbigniew Cybulski is a perfect guide through the film’s labyrinthine world, maintaining a nice air of comic wonder. Some of the other performances are very much on the broad side, even cartoonish, and for me are outshone by the outstanding photography of Mieczyslaw Jahoda with its ever-gliding camera and Krzystof Penderecki’s bizarre score alternating Spanish guitar noodlings, uncanny percussive sounds and snaps of Beethoven. It’s one of those things that shouldn’t work but does. Though a few sections, mainly in the second half, didn’t work too well for me, on the whole The Saragossa Manuscript is an amazingly ambitious film and one like few others. The last film I can remember coming out that is even “in the same ball park” was Cloud Atlas. Much like that film, it requires great patience and concentration but the rewards are plentiful if you’re willing to take the journey.
My Bongo’s Blu-ray of The Saragossa Manuscript contains no special features but does have a good restoration of the film which appears to be the same one that came out on Blu-ray in Poland a short while back. I say just “good”, because, while it’s superbly clear and deep, the image also appeared to be slightly horizontally stretched, meaning that people’s faces look fat. It’s not a huge problem like it would be on many other films, but a little distracting in places.