Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Saragossa Manuscript

Now here is a surrealist film that I can not only get behind, but love wholeheartedly. Having previously seen director Wojciech Jerzy Has's 1973 film The Hourglass Sanatorium, which I enjoyed but felt flawed and yet its imagery and atmosphere help it grow in my mind the more I think on it, I wanted to see more from the man. This led me to his most famous film, 1965's The Saragossa Manuscript. A 3 hour surrealist shifting narrative journey brought to us from the supposedly unfilmable book of the same name, written piecemeal by Jan Potocki between 1805-1815 before being left unfinished at the author's death. It stars "The Polish James Dean" Zbigniew Cybulski, just two years before his death. Well, it kinda stars him. Let's get into that...

The movie is framed as two soldiers come upon a book while fighting in the Spanish town of Saragossa in the Napoleonic Wars. One soldier realizes the book is written about his grandfather Alfonse (Cybulski), whose story we begin to see in flashback. We follow his journey to a supposedly haunted house, encountering ghosts (or maybe demons? The devil himself?) in the form of two incestually bisexual sisters who claim Alfonse is their cousin and he must marry them both to further the family name and keep it pure. Alfonse later meets a one-eyed man seemingly possessed by the devil, who has a similar story, having taken place in the same haunted house. Alfonse also tries to ride across the land to Madrid, but finds himself captured by the Inquisition, but somehow freed by the sisters from his haunted house. He ultimately finds safety in the castle of a man who may or may not have sinister plans for our hero.

We spend the majority of the second half of the movie listening to the stories of a gypsy who arrives at the castle, all seen in flashbacks. This is where the movie switches from surreal, dream-like storytelling, to puzzle box, Russian doll kinda storytelling. At one point we are watching a story within a story within a story within a story within a story within a story within a story (I think that's how deep it went, if I counted right). Alphonse himself even expresses his deliriousness in trying to keep up, saying "it's enough to make you crazy."

Crazy, maybe, but happily so. Wojciech Jerzy Has's direction is so superb that we are invested in every story within a story, and he keeps them moving so fast that even if you aren't, this one won't last long and there's another coming up that's different. It reminded me a lot of the grandfather's description of the story in The Princess Bride. Here we have demons, ghosts, sultans, battles, sword fights, gorgeous women who aren't always totally clothed, dreams, nightmares, and I haven't even mentioned that the movie has quite a few laughs in it as well. Also, Has's camera movement and control is some of the best I've ever seen from a filmmaker, often switching from long static shots to sudden huge camera movements around, in, or through a building. It's absolutely first class filmmaking and I can see why it was such a favorite of Martin Scorsese's, who has obviously been greatly influenced by Has's camera work.

This is one of the great epics of world cinema, one that's sadly underseen, despite that it's not hard to find, and has a wonderful looking transfer on the DVD I got from my library. And if I can find this in my library in central Oklahoma, wherever you are you can easily find it there as well (or through Netflix, sadly the only Has movie they have). Go see it!

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