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The Saragossa Manuscript

the saragossa manuscript
The Saragossa Manuscript

In this excerpt from a Senses of Cinema essay, US writer and editor John Fidler decodes Wojciech J. Has' mysterious and baffling film.


In M.C. Escher's delightfully baffling lithograph from 1960, Ascending and Descending, monks simultaneously trudge up and down a square series of stairs at the center of a building equipped with a spire and odd-looking puffy objects that look like large pillows. Archways below suggest the kind of building curious children might want to explore. The stairs, at the top of the structure, surround a courtyard that Escher doesn't show us. Inside this odd building might be more tricks, and not just of the eye. Are the monks escaping? Observing a daily routine? Maybe on an unending journey to nowhere? All the clues are before us, yet we make of it what we want. Escher's triumphant trompe l'oeil forces us to question what lies before us, even to ask, Is that what I'm really seeing?

Mixing elements of Homeric epic, the quest of the Grail legend (with Spain substituted for the chalice) and Mac Sennett's Keystone Cops, Wojciech J. Has's sumptuously braided, wildly farcical and surprisingly philosophical The Saragossa Manuscript (1965) raises the same kinds of unanswerable questions and take its hapless protagonist, Alphonse van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski), on a similar, seemingly neverending journey. Written by Tadeusz Kwiatkowski, the film is based on The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, a dazzling novel of adventure, magic, evil and sensual delights populated by men who somehow survive their own trips to the gallows, soldiers of misfortune, fools, wicked spirits, beautiful women, wise men and others not so wise, dozens of creepy skulls and enough dreams and nightmares to keep an army of psychiatrists busy.

Written by the Polish raconteur and aristocrat Jan Potocki (1761-1815), the novel is an expansive series of stories - and stories within stories - heard by van Worden, a dashing Captain of the Walloon guards over 66 days as he makes his wayward way to Madrid during the Spanish Inquisition. The book has been compared to The Canterbury Tales, The Decameron and One Thousand and One Nights, though it is not nearly so well known, kind of like Has's film. In fact, The Saragossa Manuscript is the only one of his 26 films available on DVD, according to the Internet Movie Database, making any screening of Has's rarely seen three-hour epic a true cinematic event. The film masterfully captures the episodic form of Potocki's novel while expanding it into a visual phantasmagoria of images bleak and lush, frightening and erotic, nuanced and glaringly obvious. Has uses a stock of recurring thematic devices to create a careful balancing of reality and dream.

The film, featured at the New York Film Festival in 1997 and released on DVD in 2002, will have its Australian premiere at ACMI on October 30, 2008.

Keep reading > for the full essay, continue reading at the Senses of Cinema website

 
 
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