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The Saragossa Manuscript (1965)
Director: Wojciech J. Has
review by Gary Couzens
In war-torn Saragossa, two soldiers find a manuscript, which tells of the adventures of Alphonse Van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski) as he crosses Spain on his way to Madrid, in the late 18th century. On the way, the people he meets tell him stories, and sometimes the characters in the stories tell him stories of their own...
The Saragossa Manuscript (aka: Rekopis znaleziony w Saragossie) is based on a very large novel by Jan Potocki - a Pole writing in French who died in 1815, and inevitably a condensation of the book, a story that takes place over 66 days. (The film's stories occur over five days, with the fourth day taking up half the running time.) The tales that Van Worden is told are frequently fantastic in content, involving seduction by succubi, a mysterious hermit, ghosts of hanged bandits, a voice from beyond the grave, and so on, with the end cycling round to the beginning. Is Van Worden trapped in a recurring nightmare, or is it all a vast conspiracy to test him?
Shot in black and white scope, Saragossa is loaded with striking imagery that makes the most of the wide frame: a crow sitting on a pile of skulls, snakes slithering around a dagger. Squeamish persons might wish to avoid a scene showing the plucking out of an eye. Wojciech Has (who died in 2000) had a 40-year career in Poland but few of his films have been shown in the west. Zbigniew Cybulski was better known for contemporary roles (he was often thought of as the Polish James Dean) and is best known in the west for his lead role in Andrzej Wajda's Ashes And Diamonds. Like Dean, he died young: hit by a train in 1969. The film contains a striking score by the distinguished Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki.
One of the advantages of owning a film like this is the possibility of repeat viewings, as at three hours this film is simply too much to take in on a first viewing. The eight-page booklet that comes with this DVD has a detailed chapter listing and a checklist of characters and the chapters they appear in. The story that Don Avadoro (Leon Niemczyk) tells on the fourth day has narrators within narrators, four layers deep (which becomes six if you take into account that Van Worden is narrating this in a manuscript found by those two soldiers in Saragossa), with characters from each narrator's story appearing in each other's, and even completing their stories for them!
The film picked up a sizeable cult following in the 1960s, despite being released in the US and UK in shortened versions (152 and 125 minutes). One fan of the film was Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, who put up money for the Pacific Film Archive to purchase a print of the complete version. Unfortunately Garcia died the day before the print was shown; it turned out to be the 152-minute version. The negative of the complete version no longer existed, and Wojciech Has held the only remaining print of it. With the aid of extra funding from Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, the restoration was complete and The Saragossa Manuscript was finally available in the West in its full version. Calling a film 'one of a kind' is a reviewing cliché, but just this once it's true - this is essential viewing for anyone interested in fantasy films, or Polish cinemas, or the work of one Eastern European director who deserves to be better known in the West. You really won't have seen anything like it.
Image's DVD has an anamorphic picture and the original Polish soundtrack in Dolby digital 1.0. Extras include biographies, a stills gallery, an isolated score, and an eight-page booklet.
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