The Saragossa Manuscript

The Boston Phoenix

DIRECTED BY: Wojciech Has

REVIEWED: 10-04-99

An obscure cult favorite, Polish director Wojciech Has's 1965 film, which is based on the 1813 novel by the eccentric nobleman Jan Patocki (he killed himself shortly after finishing it), might be the last word in organic storytelling. It's the recombinant DNA of narrative, with tale chasing tale to no seeming end other than its own proliferation.

Somewhere in Spain a Napoleonic officer, his command routed, takes refuge in a battered inn. There he becomes engrossed in an old tome with tarot-like illustrations and is joined in this perusal by an enemy officer about to capture him, who claims the book is about his father, Captain Alphonse van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski, the so-called "Polish James Dean," here looking more like the Polish Vincent D'Onofrio) of the Walloon Guards. A cut is made to the first of many stories within stories as Worden journeys to a baroquely bleak Spanish village where he meets, among others, a pair of seductive Muslim sisters, a bearded hermit, a demonically possessed lunatic, a Caballist, a rationalist philosopher, and a Gypsy, and, when you least suspect it, the Spanish Inquisition. Most have their own stories to tell, usually involving meetings with other characters with stories as well, and so on.

At a fully restored three hours this can get exhausting, though the black-comic tone, near-surreal black-and-white scope cinematography, and spooky, rollicking score by Krzysztof Penderecki invigorate. What does it all mean? Recurring themes include paternal tyranny and, of course, the uncertainty of a universe in which you can at any moment wake up next to a gibbet or a half-eaten banquet with a vague sense of transgression. Mostly, though, it's about the sheer exuberance of a good yarn -- and the void it distracts us from.

--Peter Keough

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