The Saragossa Manuscript

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Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
The Saragossa Manuscript
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

During the Napoleonic War, a young officer is captured by the enemy as he tries to read a book. His kindred-spirited captor tells him it is the story of his prisoner’s grandfather, Alphons van Worden (Zbigniew Cybluski), a Walloon guard captain on a solitary quest across Spain. He stops to rest at the inn at Venta Quemada where the innkeeper refuses to stay the night because of ghosts. Our hero, Alphons, will test his courage in just one of the stories in “The Saragossa Manuscript.”

I had the great good fortune to see Wojciech Has’s debut film “The Noose” just a day before viewing the director’s 1965 film, “The Saragossa Manuscript.” His first feature was a mature, fully founded day-in-the-life story of an alcohol addict. Seven years later, he created a true masterpiece of storytelling and filmmaking with his wonderfully complex, three-hour epic that fascinates its entire run time.

It would do “The Saragossa Manuscript” a great injustice to try to give a synopsis of a film that weaves a multiple of stories and crossed paths as one tale leads to another, then another. All the time, even with the many stories and characters, the filmmakers never loses track of the individual stories and their interaction, of characters and places, with the others. (The haunted Venta Quemada and a gallows-grave site play prominently in the several tales.)

I do not hesitate to call “The Saragossa Manuscript” a masterpiece in every way. The stories, adapted by Tadeusz Kwitkoski from the novel by Jan Potoki, are given the perfect backdrop of production design and costume and terrific cinematography (Has’s longtime collaborator Mieczyslaw Jahoda). These elements meld beautifully with the many characters that populate this great film. Many might be daunted by the 182-minute length but any real cinephile, like me, begs for more. I give it an A.

A battle during the Napoleonic Wars in the town of Saragossa leads an officer to take cover in an inn where he finds an illustrated book, opening to pictures of two men hanging and two women embracing on a bed.  When an enemy officer finds the man, he's distracted from arresting him when he realizes that a man mentioned in the book's text, Alfonse Van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski, "Ashes and Diamonds," "How To Be Loved"), was his grandfather and the two fall into the mind bending tales of "The Saragossa Manuscript."

Polish director Wojciech Has reaches the epitome of his dazzling talent for warping cinematic time in this three hour epic, a giddy, almost unclassifiable work with elements from such disparate genre works as "The Brides of Dracula" to swashbucklers and European sex farces. Has's movie, adapted from Jan Potocki's novel by Tadeusz Kwiatkowski, goes down so many rabbit holes as he skips from one individual tale to the next, one wonders if one will become utterly lost, but we're in the hands of a master who has an uncanny ability to pull the rabbit out of a hat.  Has uses so many inventive devices to switch gears, I literally laughed out loud in sheer delight at his filmmaking skill.

The first level down is one we continually return to.  Van Worden makes his way through a mystical Andalusian landscape with two servants who warn him not to proceed into haunted territory, but he forges ahead stopping at the Venta Quemada inn where he's led by a bare-breasted woman into a cavernous, Moorish looking room.  There he meets two princesses who inform him that he is their cousin and he must convert to Islam and marry both of them to produce heirs. He's given a skull shaped goblet, but after he drinks, he awakens outside, disoriented, his two servants hanging from gallows.

Van Woorden remains a constant, hunted by the Spanish Inquisition as one character after another is introduced to the film.  Tales of romance, adultery, madness, commerce, opportunism and bravery dovetail into one another, creating an experience that's like a psychedelic immersion into an alternate history - is it any wonder this was Jerry Garcia's favorite film?

Cinematographer Mieczyslaw Jahoda employs Has's favored tracking shots, often tracking subjects obscured by buildings or marketplace stalls.  The extensive cast, many of whom will be recognized from Has's earlier works, create such unique individuals they help keep us grounded in Has's ever shifting sands.  "The Saragossa Manuscript" is a 182 minute epic that's so continually engaging, it could have gone on for another hour or two without wearing out its welcome.

Grade:  A
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