Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Yet another example of an obscure foreign masterpiece unearthed by DVD, 1965's The Saragossa Manuscript is a Polish fantasy epic physically set in Spain but actually happening in the mind of its imaginative author. Adapted from an early 19th century book, the show is part Luis Borges, part Canterbury Tales, and part Playboy's Girls of Warsaw. And it's funny, too.
The Mr. Bongo release is licensed from Jeck Films, the same source as the 2001 disc released by Image Entertainment.
Two soldiers read a book found in a house in the embattled town of Saragossa, which one of them thinks is about his Grandfather. In the book, Captain Alfons van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski) is trying to get to Madrid but is delayed in the Sierra Morena by what seem to be the ghost demons of two hanged men. In cyclical waking dreams, he's seduced by a pair of Arabian princesses in a palace hidden under the decrepit Quemada (trans: burned) Inn. Yet every morning, he wakes up back out in the pass, under the gallows and its two corpses. Fleeing this dilemma, he's captured by the inquisition but rescued by some noblemen who invite him to a castle, where for awhile it looks as if his ordeal was all a planned conspiracy. A passing gypsy tells a tale of the son of a Jewish Merchant, which becomes a Chinese box of overlapping stories inside stories.
Luis Buñuel likes to play with flashbacks hidden within flashbacks, a literary device employed in The Saragossa Manuscript to create a Spain of interlocking destinies and endless complexity. It eventually coalesces into a humorous portrait of a culture united by its prejudicial differences. Soldiers mingle with priests who are really sheiks in disguise, and officers of El Santo Oficio indeed appear when no-one expects them (nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!). A rake leeches off the son of Jewish merchant, but appearances are deceptive, and both he and a vagabond Gypsy prove to be honorable souls.
Four times as long as Simon of the Desert, The Saragossa Manuscript creates a Spain where the doings of ghosts and devils are as real as the beautifully recreated town squares and villas. Every nubile maiden in Poland would seem to have been recruited to play the various unholy vixens and mortal temptresses met along the way, and their coquettish games remind us of the narrative tricks the author is pulling on Alfons - and us.
Most of the relationships have aspects of a con in action; to watch the show is to constantly try to figure out what the heck is going on. Will the weird happenings be revealed as a conspiracy, or perhaps the trick of the mind? Or is Alfons already a soul in hell? With the Inquisition popping up unannounced at any moment, we're almost expect our hero to be revealed as dreaming the whole plot from the torture chamber of Terry Gilliam's Brazil. Doors are constantly opening before us, as if we're sharing Alfons' dream. Potential clues to the mystery are offered: the sheik's lost shoe, the weird skeleton-like landscape, and the drinks that Alfons is repeatedly offered (in various locations) from the same skull-shaped goblet.
Fans who like to graph out the time-level intricacies of the Back to the Future movies will want pencil and paper handy to take notes: the flashbacks go far deeper than in anything else Savant has seen, indicating that Jan Potocki must have been having great fun dreaming up such a twisted pretzel of a plot. No sooner does one story begin, than a character in it begins telling another story. The tangents overlap and confusion is inevitable; not only is it difficult to figure out how storyteller #2 would learn the particulars of the tale told by storyteller #4, it's impossible to keep them straight anyway. The good news is that the stories don't lead into conceptual cul-de-sacs, but pay off in the kind of ribald good humor that one would expect from a classic farce.
Star Zbigniew Cybulski is a buffoonish hero, very unlike the ultra-cool rebel he played for Andrej Wajda in Ashes and Diamonds All the other roles are fun, especially Zdzislaw Mkalakiewicz as the manipulative rake who, happily does not turn out to be a demon like so many of the other characters. A number of very attractive and alluringly clad actresses decorate the screen in this old-fashioned, male-oriented adventure.
Director Has' camera moves constantly and well; he's a very good director. Stylistic flourishes at the end involve a mirror and a doppelgänger world that might indicate time travel as well as a literal 'literary distance'; these are intriguingly handled and pitched at a tone consistent with the rest of the film. Watching the movie means enduring three hours of Spaniards speaking Polish subtitled in English. The epic is broken down into two parts, which helps. But it's not the easiest film to watch or, especially with this crazy continuity, to follow.
The music uses several classical cues and several instances of Spanish guitar source music. A few Forbidden Planet- like electronic warblings find their way in but seem appropriate to the weird fantasy-scape.
Mr Bongo's DVD of The Saragossa Manuscript is not quite the same pressing as the 2002 Image release. To begin with, the 16:9 the image is not flagged for all players and may cause difficulty in getting a full widescreen image. Compared to the earlier Image disc, the picture is smoother but slightly softer.
The only extra is a still gallery, which makes the 2002 O.O.P. Image disc, readily available used, a much better buy. The older disc has an isolated music track and very informative liner notes by Darren Gross that include a breakdown of the film's complex flashback structure. An essay by Alan Trist also explains the cover illustration rendered in the spirit of a 1960s psychedelic poster, relating the film to Jerry Garcia, Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola. You'll need to consult extras on the older disc and Savant's older review to learn about that.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Saragossa Manuscript rates:
Supplements: Still gallery
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 18, 2009
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson
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