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THE SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT
DVD. Mr Bongo Films.

The Saragossa ManuscriptMade in 1965, Polish cult favourite The Saragossa Manuscript is a film of two halves – literally, as it is split into Part One and Part Two, but also in terms of the content. Other than the ending of the film, this could be two unrelated films… and that is just a part of the fascination that this remarkable, fascinating puzzle of a film holds over the viewer. This is a film open to many interpretations, and probably needs a few viewings before you really can get to grips with it.

In the Napoleonic Wars, two officers from opposing sides find themselves drawn to a large illustrated book in an abandoned inn on the battlefield. It’s this contents of this book that make up the main story, at least for Part One, as it tells the story of Alfonso van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski), who is travelling through the Sierra Morena Mountains en route to Madrid. It’s a desolate place, like Hell itself, scattered with corpses and bones – a haunted land that becomes stranger when van Worden stays the night in a deserted inn and encounters two beautiful women who inform him that they are his cousins and that, as the last of his line, he must marry both of them – and convert to Islam. But the next morning, he awakens to find himself back amongst the skulls and the dead. Meeting a hermit priest, he then hears the story of another, allegedly possessed man who had a similar encounter with two other ghostly women.

Later that day, van Worden is captured by the Inquisition and tortured before being rescued by the Zoto Brothers – previously seen as corpses – and the two women, who take him back to their home, only for a Sheikh to appear and force him to drink from a poisoned skull chalice; awakening back amongst the dead, our hero meets with a Cabalist and a mathematician, who accompany him back to the Cabalist’s castle, where the first half ends.

The Saragossa ManuscriptPart Two mostly consists of a series of interwoven stories told to the gathered crowd by a gypsy leader whose band is visiting the castle. Tales of romance and double-dealing, these have a lighter feel than the first half of the film, often feeling like a less raunchy Pasolini film – but with the characters and the stories interwoven, you need to stay alert, and almost certainly won’t notice every connection on first viewing, if only because characters will appear as background figures in some stories before taking the lead in others, that in turn connect to other parts of the film. It’s a remarkable, if sometimes frustrating experience, unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. Eventually, both parts are brought together for an ending that leaves as many questions open as answered.

Often shown in edited versions – which must’ve played hell with the carefully crafted structure – this edition in the restored full version, and it’s pretty astonishing. The first part has a remarkable sense of dread – the eerie locations, the unsettling music score, the supernatural elements and the sense of displacement make it an effectively weird experience, close to, but not quite becoming, a horror story. The second half has a bawdy humour to it that seems at odds with this opening, but is nevertheless entertaining, even if you become increasingly aware that the stories within stories within stories are the movie equivalent of wandering through a strange city and turning down side street after side street – it’s increasingly hard to remember where you started out, and seems unlikely that the film could successfully return you to a point that might be half an hour and several stories ago. That it does is a tribute to director Wojciech Has’ handling of the notoriously complex novel by Count Jan Potocki.

In the end, this is a film that rewards effort, and that effort is well worth putting in. In terms of both visuals and narrative, it’s challenging, trippy, funny and very, very odd. And you’ll probably want to sit down and watch it again right away.

DAVID FLINT

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