The Saragossa Manuscript

It has been a long road to get this review finished. Several months ago I finally got up the nerve to bug local film critic Colin Covert of the Star Tribune about checking out my site. Over the years I have attended numerous screenings that he has also been at and naturally we’ve discussed many of these films afterwards. After enough time we’ve developed enough of a rapport to occasionally rag on each others preferences but I’ve never pimped out anything of my own, as that would require gumption, so I was a bit apprehensive when I approached him that fateful Saturday morning.

It turns out that I had nothing to worry about as Colin was immediately interested in my little undertaking. We talked about the goals of my site and some of the movies I had enjoyed so far for a good solid 15 minutes when he quickly offered up his own recommendation for me to watch, The Saragossa Manuscript. He quickly described the film and remarked that not only was it Jerry Garcia’s favorite film, but that it had an ending that would “Peel your brain back!” Now I didn’t quite know what that meant, but it sure sounded awesome. All that was left was for me to simply track down this rare gem.

Now tracking down The Saragossa Manuscript was a far simpler task then I initially anticipated. What had previously been an incredibly hard to find film was re-released in 2001 directly due to the efforts of Jerry Garcia, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. You see besides Garcia, both Coppola and Scorsese, along with famed Spanish director Luis Buñuel, Lars von Trier and Harvey Keitel all count The Saragossa Manuscript as their favorite film, a fact that only further intrigued me at the possibilities awaiting to be discovered within the film.

Granted I have not heard of every film ever made, but that The Saragossa Manuscript which had been so lauded and I was so blissfully unaware of it struck a bit of a nerve. I’ve never been one to take kindly to being behind the cool curve and here I was sucking hind tit on a possibly pretentious art film. That’s just unacceptable.

Of course, Netflix promised me a very long wait once I added it to me queue. But as The Fates would have it, the wait was surprisingly short, and before I knew it The Saragossa Manuscript was sitting in my mailbox, just waiting to be viewed.

But in spite of my excitement of finally being offered the opportunity to be included in this rather exclusive cinematic club, I had all sorts of problems trying to find the time to sit down and watch the film in its entirety. You see, the three hour running time was proving to be a bit daunting with my hectic holiday schedule. Sure, I could have watched the film piece meal in two or three parts (the film is actually broken up into two parts labeled, oddly enough, Part One and Part Two) but when I informed Colin of this plan I was immediately rebuked. “No!!! You must watch it in one sitting. Have someone bring you food if you must!”, says the guy who gave Transformers 4 stars.

So I decided to follow his advice and wait to watch the film when I had time to digest the whole thing. And I waited. And waited. I waited three weeks, when my semi-regular not anywhere close to annual trip to Ohio meant I’d be spending hours in the car with my family, and nothing says Christmas like obscure Polish sorta dramedy type films. Am I right or am I right?

During the Napoleonic Wars a young French officer seeks shelter in an abandoned building in the town of Saragossa. In this building he discovers a rather odd book, and when an enemy officer attempts to arrest him, the the second officer is also drawn to narrate the book which seems to have been written by his own grandfather (Zbigniew Cybulski). Soon the officer’s grandfather finds himself immersed within a story of fleeing gypsy cannibals, married to Muslim sisters … in his dreams, and on the run from the Spanish Inquisition. But when he meets up with a Cabalist and his storytelling friends, that is when things start to get truly interesting.

The sheer scope of The Saragossa Manuscript is not so much difficult to describe (though it is) as it is counter productive to the viewer (which it may not be). The nature of the plotting of the film is so layered and complex that one couldn’t help but offer up any number of unintended spoilers, and as such I am going to do my darnedest to avoid talking about the frame work plot as much as possible.

Simply put, films like this are not made, and we are worse the wear for it. Something like Synecdoche, New York is certainly comparable, but a comparison would show that rather ambitious film is surprisingly meager. Where Synecdoche, New York follows the storyline of one person and creates a world perpetually folding in on itself, it scarcely strays from its primary protagonist and his rather obvious, if also queer, arc. But The Saragossa Manuscript blissfully jumps from one character to the next, shifting the story framework with each jump, as the story continues to fold in on itself. While this is happening the film still manages to offer hints at just how interconnected these seemingly random stories just might be. Then, when you are good and confundicated by the entire proceedings, it deftly maneuvers so as to reveal the true nature of this weird and wonderful tale and its relationship to its hero(s). And before you know it you find yourself unable to disagree with any of the proceeding events, no matter how jaw droppingly absurd they might have originally seemed.

To put it another way, where Synecdoche, New York has you ponder just why a house is semi- aflame The Saragossa Manuscript takes the burning house, fills it with demons who are intent on haunting it, marries the house to a pair of bi-sexual Mormon brothers, then proceeds to tell you the tale of the door mouse living in the attic of the house who has a sick grandfather who grew up in Manhattan and knew this charming house cat whom he had numerous adventures with as a child, err, mouse. Now, by the time the grandfather mouse and his companion cat have finished their adventures in the underfoot of Manhattan you will realize just why the house is burning and find it perfectly acceptable and why shouldn’t it be? You see? Also you might have traveled through time, but that is a discussion for another time and place.

Crafting this delicious web is renowned Polish director Wojciech Has. I know little of him or his films but I am now firmly and forever a fan. I also find it mind boggling that he has made other films that are even more highly regarded then The Saragossa Manuscript. Outside of filming the Rapture (Renew!) I can’t imagine anything more impressive or inspiring being caught on film.

But while the plot of The Saragossa Manuscript is the true scene stealer, all the delicious plotting in the world is nothing without a capable cast. Headed up by the famed Polish actor Zbigniew Cybulski (Often referred to as the Polish James Dean for both his acting style and his untimely death at a young age. Though unlike the American James Dean who died in a fiery car crash, the Polish James Dean died when he tripped trying to board a moving train. Which makes one wonder if the Ethiopian James Dean chocked to death on a ham sandwich. I kid. I kid.). But The Saragossa Manuscript is a notable departure for Cybulski, who typically was depicted as the epitome of cool where here he is more of a bumbling buffoon, serving often as the comic relief yet he gamely pulls it off with eerie ease. It is an impressive and thoroughly enjoyable performance.

But far from being merely a ridiculous boob, Alfonse Van Worden (Cybulski) is a character that is relatively easy to sympathize with. Sure he is a bit on the slow side but considering that he is twisted and turned from one unbelievable fantastical situation to the next it is to be expected that one would be a bit haggard by the events. It is even reasonable to infer that Van Worden just might be perfectly competent in any normal situation. Making him a pitch perfect example of the everyman. And while the rest of the cast is more then capable (in particular Kazimierz Opalinski is quite impressive in his brief duel role of seemingly polar opposite characters) it is Leon Niemczyk as Don Avadoro who dominates the screen once he appears. The film seems as powerless to resist his charms as the audience is, and quickly bends to his will as the story shifts so that he may become the primary protagonist. It is a fascinating twist and if it wasn’t so elegantly done could have lost the audience.

But Niemczyk more then holds his own as he weaves a fascinatingly complex tale around his raconteur. You see Avadoro is a man born into the upper crust of society but he chose to reject it to live a life that he found far more enthralling. He drifts from one noble to the next, happily working in the background to better their lives and entertain his own. And now, far too old to continue such behavior, he has taken up with a band of gypsies and he regales travelers with his fascinating and lurid tales. He is a 17th Century beat poet and it is easy to see why the American counter-culture has formed such a strong bond with this film because of it.

And a strong bond it is. I myself fell under The Saragossa Manuscript’s spell as I sat and marveled at the film. While I was initially amused at its odd libertine based plot, with each new twist I became more enamored with the film. What was initially enjoyment soon shifted to fascination then sublimely surreal and finally outright adulation at such an impressive and unique film. I might not quite classify it as my favorite film like others have, but after finally finding the time to witness this cinematic marvel for myself I now understand that such accolades are anything but hyperbole.

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Matt Gamble (854 Posts)

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  • James Gillham

    This is a terrific review. One can’t help but be inspired to add this to their queue.

    Also – if life were a game of Dungeons & Dragons, you’d surely be given extra experience points for penning such an elegant review and still finding time to use the phrase “sucking hind tit.” I mean… wow.

  • Peter

    It is mind blowing movie my father insisted that I must watch it. Watched first time when I was 14. Found it as typical modern boy addicted to action on screen, boring long and black and white. Second time I was at the university 23. Man what a movie, what a story and amazing acting as polish is my mother langue. I could sleep needed to know why is all that.
    Very very funny movie, very clever universal stories as ipads and fast cars dont really change meritum our lives.

    Can watch Lars Von Trier Idots or Hydrozagadka.

    If you can watch please polish movie Hydrozagadka. Please do.
    Always thought Monthy Python was first and again father said you must watch it. Rotfl.
    Great review and touch.