The Saragossa Manuscript (film, 2008)

A review of the Polish classic, from Death Ray 13.



Director: Wojciech Has

Writers: Tadeusz Kwiatowski

Starring: Zbigniew Cybulski, Iga Cembrzynska, Elzbieta Czyzewska, Gustaw Holoubek, Stanislaw Igar

 Massive Polish epic based on massive Polish novel. One of the grandaddys of portmanteau pictures.

A time consuming affair at 180 minutes, The Saragossa Manuscript will nevertheless reward every second spent with it. It is, after all, one of the favourite movies of a tranche of Hollywood’s biggest and best, and not without good reason.

Based on the book The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, by Polish count Jan Potocki, it’s a set of stories within stories, each nestled tight up inside each other like Russian dolls (an analogy the Poles will not thank me for). There’s an overall framing tale, like that in the 1001 Nights or Decameron, to which the book is often compared. In the film, this is where two soldiers from opposing sides in the Napoleonic wars find the manuscript in a house in Saragossa. Much of the story they read concerns the adventures of the foolhardy Alphonse Van Worden, a captain in the Wallonian Guard, in 18th Century Spain, but his tale dissolves into others within the narrative, as Van Worden recounts anecdotes of his own, and meets many other characters who tell him their stories in turn.

Rampacked full of ghosts, gypsies, devils, underground Muslims and the Spanish Inquisition, a summary reads like a Monty Python skit, or the novel Blackadder wrote, and it is not without humour, but the film encompasses so much more, and its layers of story slowly enwrap you to delivera metaphysical trip through the human experience. Its multiple strands return time and again to the themes of love and death, by roads both mundane and esoteric.

Gorgeous sets and superb performances wholly engage the eye, assets which are wonderfully utilised by director Wojciech Has. The picture is accentuated by a smartly themed score by Krzysztof Penderecki, and an experimental (for the time) soundscape.

This DVD is the version restored with funds provided by Martin Scorcese and Jerry Garcia in 2001. In general it is a fine picture, though more up to date technology could probably eliminate the faint sound echo and film spotting in some scenes

Did you know?

Zbigniew Cybulski is often called the Polish James Dean. He appeared in many films, often in his trademark sunglasses. He died after falling under a moving train at the age of 40, so actually a tad older than Dean…


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