Word on the street for many years has been that Wojciech Has’s 1965 feature Rekopis znaleziony w Saragossie (The Saragossa Manuscript) was musician Jerry Garcia’s favorite film. Rumor also has it that Garcia loved the film so much that he purchased a print and donated it to Pacific Film Archive, stipulating only that he could screen it there any time he liked.
Is any of this true? I’m far from sure, but I’ve always held Garcia’s perhaps apocryphal passion for the film against it, as there are few things in life I enjoy less than listening to The Grateful Dead. However, with the film screening at the Archive at 7:00 p.m. on Saturday, June 14 as part of the series ‘Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema’, it’s time for a reassessment. Presumably Jerry will not be in attendance.
Based on an 1815 novel by Jan Potocki, The Saragossa Manuscript takes place in Spain during the Napoleonic Wars. During a brief battlefield lull, Walloon Guards captain Alfonse Van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski) takes refuge in an abandoned building, where he stumbles across a strange book illustrated with pictures of hanging men, lobsters, and spooning maidens. This is the titular tome, the departure point for what will become an increasingly digressive three-hour ‘narrative’ in which stories spin off from stories spun off from other stories.
Though the film can’t quite match the meandering pace and misdirection of Laurence Sterne’s infamous novel ‘Tristram Shandy’ (itself made into a superb film in 2005), The Saragossa Manuscript will prove a challenge for anyone who prefers a linear plot, for here there is none. Instead, we are presented with a succession of macabre and humorous shaggy dog tales in which our hero is propositioned by a pair of Muslim virgins, arrested by the Inquisition, and informed of the strange truth about both a one-eyed simpleton and the son of Cadiz’s wealthiest trader. Stories loop back into stories; roads serve as a cinematic moebius strip for characters searching fruitlessly for the fastest route from one location to another.
It’s all accompanied by Krzysztof Penderecki’s memorable music, a schizophrenic blend of classical, minimalist and electronic cues leavened with snippets of Beethoven. Penderecki’s work, of course, has also featured in series’ namesake Scorsese’s 2010 thriller Shutter Island, as well as in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. And then there’s Stanley Kubrick, presumably a fan of both Penderecki and The Saragossa Manuscript: in addition to using several of the composer’s pieces in The Shining, Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (itself based on a darkly comic 19th century novel) echoes the episodic (and duel-obsessed) focus of Has’s film.
So having given it a second chance, how do I feel about The Saragossa Manuscript now? Well, it’s never going to be among my favorite films, but it is a beautifully made curate’s egg. Even at slightly more than three hours in length, it’s still shorter than your average Dead concert – and you won’t need to drop acid to make it sound (or look) better than it really is.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.
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