The Saragossa Manuscript (DVD)
- C Community Grade
Jan Potocki's 1813 novel The Manuscript At Saragossa should have been impossible for Polish filmmaker Wojciech Has to adapt. An Arabian Nights riff replete with harems, duelists, folkloric beasties, and a story-within-a-story-within-a-story structure, Potocki's text is at once irresistibly cinematic and too complex to be converted into visuals. (In a premature fit of post-modernism, the author even occasionally stopped the layered narrative for a treatise on mathematics.) But Has did make a yeoman stab at an adaptation with his three-hour cinematic tapestry The Saragossa Manuscript, released in 1965 to the delight of budding hippie head-cases around the globe. When belated, ruthless editing reduced Manuscript's running time by an hour, and the film disappeared into the ether of disputed international rights, it acquired a reputation as one of the great lost '60s movie "trips," rivaling Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo. Then, prior to his death, Saragossa disciple Jerry Garcia donated money to have the film restored and re-released. With additional assistance from Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, The Saragossa Manuscript finally experienced a revival in 1999. It opened to mostly tepid reviews, but stoked an enthusiastic reception by new converts, who have built a plethora of web-based temples concentrated on cracking the film's structural codes. Manuscript may not reward such intense study, but it's a fun way to pass the time. The film is broken into two parts: In the first 80 minutes, a Belgian captain played by Zbigniew Cybulski travels through Spain, avoiding military and/or Inquisition capture by ducking into spooky inns where scantily clad women offer him drink and comfort if he will promise to share their faithwhich he does, just before waking up and beginning a variation on the same cat-and-mouse game. In the final 100 minutes, Cybulski breaks the cycle, settling in at a manor where gypsies entertain the guests by relating a tale of feudal romance and honor, featuring characters who tell stories about characters who tell stories. By about the fifth level of nested narrative, the conceit becomes hilariously lunatic. Has' understanding of the wit in Potocki's book (coupled with Mieczyslaw Jahoda's sumptuous black-and-white cinematography) keeps Manuscript entertaining even when one story begins to collapse into another; the Byzantine plot can be taxing, but it's never boring. The film's absurdist black humor and mockery of aristocratic pretensions predates Monty Python and Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon by a few years, but Manuscript does show kinship with both. It's also obvious why the film appealed to Garcia: Has' stream-of-consciousness storytelling and sardonic humor have an analogue in the late icon's folk-rooted guitar improvisation.