The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges said in a lecture that there were four procedures found in fantastic literature: the voyage in time, the double, the contamination of reality by dreams, and the mise en abyme - the story within the story. The Saragossa Manuscript relies on all four over the course of its three hour narrative, but it´s the use of stories within stories, and stories overlapping stories that make it remarkable, boldly taking the technique to (and perhaps beyond) the limits of human patience and understanding. It may drive the viewer to distraction, but if you are so inclined, it will amply reward multiple viewings.
a little taste of surrealism
The Saragossa Manuscript was made in 1965 by Polish director Wojciech Has and a very large cast of what must have been Poland´s most talented actors. It was almost forgotten until some American celebrities put up the funds to produce a restored version of the film on DVD. The Saragossa Manuscript is adapted from the 19th century novel of more or less the same name by Jan Potoki. He was obsessed by ¨1001 Arabian Nights,¨ gnosticism and the mysteries of the orient. By the way, Potoki is another example of a Pole writing his most notable works in a foreign language.
We open with a comic battle scene in Spain during the Napoleonic wars. Two officers from opposing sides come across the eponymous manuscript in an abandoned house, immediately lose interest in the battle and become enthralled with the pictures and the story, which, coincidentally concerns the grandfather of one of the officers, another officer of the guards who has set off over the mountains for Madrid. Suddenly the scene changes to a closeup of the grandfather, Alphonso, a young man here, waking up among the skulls under a gibbet somewhere along the mountainous path. His servants are worried that the place is haunted but Alphonso presses on. Soon he finds an inn, seemingly abandoned, where he plans to spend the night. He´s startled by a hand on his shoulders. A Tunisian woman, one breast exposed, beckons him, telling him to follow downstairs where two foreign women are waiting him to join them for supper. He´s led to a cavernous, magical space below the inn where the girls, two Muslim princesses, proceed to seduce him. They tell him he is their cousin and the last of their family line. It´s his duty to bed the sisters, in a threesome no less, produce an heir, convert to Islam and keep the whole affair a secret. Alphonso agrees and the pact is sealed with a drink from an elaborate human skull chalice. He drinks, loses consciousness, and re-awakens among the skulls where we first met him. The movie continues. I´ve described about the first twenty minutes or so, and the rest of it goes on in the same comic, even farcical vein.
Something that stood out for me was the pervasive, casual semi-nudity. I hadn´t expected to see this in a film made under what I thought to be a prudish communist regime. At about the same time ¨Who´s Afraid of Virginia Woolf¨ was being made in Hollywood. A great movie and a notorious one which, due to lines like ¨screw you¨ and ¨son of a bitch,¨ tested the limits of the prudish production code. Comparing these two movies, we´d be hard put to choose which was made in a free society and which was made under totalitarianism. It´s conceivably possible that someone without the requisite background knowledge could even make the wrong choice.
Politically, The Saragossa Manuscript is not nearly so adventurous or daring. It does owe its aesthetic to surrealism, a movement which made its bones in the early 20th century by playfully and sometimes bizarrely questioning or undermining the bourgeois conception of reality. Surrealism never really prospered in the socialist republics. Perhaps this film´s questioning of the bland certainties of the Enlightenment was as far as Poland´s nod to the spirit of the 60´s dared to go.
The Saragossa Manuscript is available for download here, via a bittorrent client.