SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT, THE (Rekopis Znaleziony w Saragossie)

(director: Wojciech Has; screenwriters: from the novel by Jan Potocki/Tadeusz Kwiatkowski; cinematographer: Mieczyslaw Jahoda; editor: Krystyna Komosinska; music: Krzysztof Penderecki; cast: Zbigniew Cybulski (Alfonse Van Worden), Iga Cembrznska (Princess Emina), Joanna Jedryka (Princess Zibelda), Franciszek Pieczka (Pascheco), Kazimierz Opalinski (Hermit); Runtime: 175; MPAA Rating: NR; Image Entertainment; 1965-Poland-in Polish with English subtitles)

“An interesting failure.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The Saragossa Manuscript is a 1965 Polish fantasy epic directed by Wojciech Has that was adapted by screenwriter Tadeusz Kwiatkowski from a book by Jan Potocki that tells a labyrinthine story taking place in the early 19th century. The author committed suicide a year after his book was published. It’s set at the end of the Napoleonic era in Spain but in all actuality takes place in the mind of its author. Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead said that this was his favorite flick. I found it to be an interesting failure.

The story centers around Alfonse Van Worden, an amiable but clownish swashbuckling Belgian captain, who travels across Spain during the Peninsular War and finds romance and adventure in a series of episodes. Hidden by the film’s multiple stories is its real aim to explore the imagery of the Tarot and the Cabbala mysteries. The film never succeeds in clarifying those mysteries because it is too muddled, whether in its original release length of 175 minutes or its abbreviated version of 124 minutes. In either case it suffers from being too long or too short, or filled with too much ambition to tell its never ending tale with some kind of fitting narrative.

In the embattled Spanish town of Saragossa a Belgian officer finds an old book, in the form of a manuscript with alluring pictures, in an abandoned house. It relates his grandfather’s story as captain in the Walloon guard, where he was a soldier of honor and courage seeking the shortest route through the Sierra Morena to Madrid. In the story, Captain Alfonse van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski) is delayed in the Sierra Morena by the demonic ghosts of two hanged men.

While Alfonse is entranced by the book enemy soldiers enter the house and arrest him, but they also become entranced by the book. In a series of dreams, Alfonse is seduced by a pair of Moorish sister princesses, Emina (Iga Cembrzynskza) and Zibelda (Joanna Jedryka), at a deserted inn, the Venta Quemada, who call him cousin and they tell him he is the descendant of a noble family and that he must undergo a series of challenging missions to prove himself to be suited to marry them. But when he awakens he’s still in the pass, under the gallows and its two corpses. Trying to get out of this trap, he’s captured by the Inquisition but rescued by noblemen who take him to a castle. Wojciech Has sets up a Chinese-box Borgesian type of teaser, where there are overlapping stories inside stories. It is hard to tell what’s real or a dream, as the adventures continue and the ghosts and devils seem as real as the beautiful scenery. The officer meets a hermit priest, later revealed as a sheik (Kazierz Opalinksi), and his seemingly demonic possessed one-eyed assistant, Pacheco (Franciszek Pieczka), who may be faking that ailment. There are many other tales as Alfonse continues to dream and awaken, eventually he returns to Venta Quemada where the princesses await with more stunning news.

Among all the flashbacks, Spanish guitar music, pranks pulled, demons uncovered, harem women, mystical characters and ghost tales, there’s some magnificent b/w photography and an earnestness to tell a fantastic symbolic epic story. But since it never came together as anything but a potentially great tale and a grueling meditation on reality and illusion, it remained sadly lacking in cohesiveness, logic, purpose and emotional connectiveness. It’s a film that saps all your energy when viewing because it demands so much attention, and the rewards of its storytelling were just not there. The Tarot and the Cabbala are two subjects in particular that interest me, but I couldn’t get a clear handle where the film was going with those visions and as a result lost interest in a film that always kept me at a distance.