[2 September 2009]
Rare is it that a critically acclaimed film finds its way to DVD with little or no fanfare. Such is the case with Mr. Bongo Films’ release of The Saragossa Manuscript, however. Hailed by notables such as Scorsese, Coppola, and Bunuel, the film easily qualifies as something of a lost classic; rarely seen or heard of yet championed by those fortunate enough to have experienced it.
The Saragossa Manuscript is from Poland, a country whose cinematic contributions have largely been ignored, save for a handful of filmmakers. Director Wojciech Has would go on to receive acclaim for his later works, but The Saragossa Manuscript remained his most famous. Upon release in 1965, the film attained an immediate cult following despite appearing in a truncated version in the US. The version of the film presented on Mr. Bongo’s DVD is the full length cut, recreated during a restoration process financed by Grateful Dead leader Jerry Garcia, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola.
The Saragossa Manuscript is an adaptation of the surreal fantasy novel of the same name by Polish author Jan Potocki. Though ostensibly the story of a young nobleman, the scope of the work is vast, encompassing religion, mathematics, philosophy, and magic. During the besiegement of Saragossa, an officer seeks refuge in an abandoned inn and finds an ancient and intricately illustrated text. He is so transfixed by the book that he fails to notice the enemy surrounding him. As they attempt to arrest him they too, become enchanted by the book and begin translating it for him.
The book is the story of Alphonse van Worden, a young man traveling to Madrid to accept his appointment as a captain of the Walloon Guard. His eagerness to begin his position dictates that he must take the shortest route; one that takes him through an allegedly haunted and certainly deserted region of Spain. He ignores the advice of his servants to avoid the region, flatly stating that the ghosts and demons they believe inhabit the area simply do not exist.
Van Worden’s disbelief is tested soon thereafter when he seeks shelter in a nearby inn, the Venta Quemada. The innkeeper allows him to stay provided that he and his wife are allowed to leave – they are too frightened by the spirits to remain there at night. He again laughs off the existence of the supernatural, but soon finds himself at a loss to explain the events that begin occurring to him. That night he is led to a great hall where a pair of beautiful sisters, Emina and Zibelda, inform him that they wish to marry him provided he converts to Islam. As he considers their offer, the sisters give him a skull goblet to drink from and van Worden awakes the next morning at the foot of the gallows, believing it all to have been a dream.
Van Worden then meets an elderly monk who offers him shelter for the night and cautions him against the demons that roam the countryside. To prove his point, the monk instructs the demon possessed Pacheco to explain how his love of two beautiful sisters reduced him from nobility to a disfigured wretch. Upon leaving, van Worden is captured by the Inquisition and questioned about Emina and Zibelda. The pair arrives to rescue him along with the two criminals van Worden saw on the gallows that morning, now alive and well.
Once back in their hall, van Worden drinks from the goblet and once again finds himself at the foot of the gallows the next morning. This time he is not alone, however. A mysterious cabalist is with him, and he invites him and a mathematician they meet to stay with him for the evening.
Van Worden’s meeting with the cabalist is the end of part one of The Saragossa Manuscript, a point at which the audience will be in a state of confusion similar to that of the main character. The first section of the film is very much concerned with van Worden’s experiences with the supernatural in the form of the two sisters. He jokingly tells them that he believes they are evil spirits; their reaction to his statement does not do much to dissuade him from that belief. Van Worden begins the film as a skeptic, not believing in the supernatural or being very religious either, and part one illustrates how he becomes more open to the ideas of magic and the supernatural.
It’s possible to read the first section of the film as being critical of organized religion in that the forces of Islam and Christian are at the root of van Worden’s problems. Islam, represented by the sisters and the undead bandits, is shown as a religion of conspiracy and secrecy, with libertine views of sexuality and marriage. The superstitious and unkind monk, who belittles Pacheco and Van Worden equally, as well as the tortures of the Inquisition forces, embodies Christianity.
It is likely no coincidence that the Venta Quemada, the source of all of van Worden’s misfortune, bears an aural similarity to Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor known for the harshest treatment of non-believers. If part one is used to lampoon organized religion, part two can be seen as championing a more humanist belief system; one based on coincidence and accident rather than otherworldly interference.
At the cabalist’s home, van Worden listens to the tale of the gypsy Avadora. Though born a nobleman, Avadora lived as a beggar on the streets of Madrid as a young man. It is there that he first learned that all beings are interconnected without their knowledge; a principle that he illustrates through his story.
Avadora is hired by a jealous husband to spy on his wife, whom he believes is unfaithful to him. Being a bit of trickster, Avadora instead visits her lover, Don Toledo, to inform him of her husband’s suspicions. At Don Toledo’s home Avadora’s story begins to fragment, becoming a series of nested stories – sometimes to five or more degrees – as each character relates events to others and, in turn, it is told to Avadora. Avadora’s stories of infidelity and mistaken identities all intertwine, further confusing van Worden, before arriving at some place very familiar: the story of van Worden’s father.
The Saragossa Manuscript bears a striking resemblance to a surreal version of The Canterbury Tales. Director Wojciech Has crafts the often-confusing film in such a beautiful manner, however, that the audience is never alienated from the material. Rather than pulling back from the film, one is drawn into the maze of The Saragossa Manuscript, and the film engenders a desire to comprehend its mysteries rather than to throw one’s hands up at its complexity. Every element of the film – set design, pacing, the performances – point to the work being a masterpiece of surrealist cinema, as densely layered as a Bunuel or Jodorowsky film, yet far more accessible.
It bears noting that at over three hours long, The Saragossa Manuscript might be a bit much for the average viewer. Viewers who typically avoid subtitles or black and white films likely won’t be converted either. That said, those who do decide to experience The Saragossa Manuscript will not be disappointed. It’s a powerful film, one that you will want to watch multiple times to catch all of Has’ nuances. The Saragossa Manuscript is certainly one of the best “lost films” brought to DVD in recent years and will doubtlessly show up on multiple “best of 2009” lists. Highly recommended.