Sunday, 20 March 2011

Profondo Saragossa

The Saragossa Manuscript
1965 Poland
Directed by Wojciech Has
Mr. Bongo Region 0

The Saragossa Manuscript has got to be one of the oddest and most engaging movies I’ve seen in a while. It’s a hard one to describe and it’s based on a novel (The Manuscript found in Saragossa) which wasn’t quite completed by the time the writer committed suicide. Now that I know that... the lack of a return to the principle narrative at the end of the movie makes more sense to me... I think. Or at least a lot more sense than the similarly blasé and non-logical ending of RoboGeisha (reviewed here).

Golly. Where to start... the opening of the movie is set in the Napoleonic Wars with two sides fighting over the warzone of a city. One of the soldiers enters a house or tavern of some sort and finds a book filled with magical pictures and narrative - which is presumably The Saragossa Manuscript of the title. Some enemy soldiers rush in and take him prisoner... although he barely acknowledges this or notices it because he is too engrossed in the tome in front of him. A soldier is left to guard him but he, too, seems fairly indifferent as he joins his prisoner at the table and they begin to read the book together. The enemy soldier makes some comment about the narrative seeming to be about one of his ancestors... the movie then goes into the story of the book, set many years before... and of course, with an intriguing opening like that, I was hooked.

And so this second narrative begins and tells the story of a man who, unbeknownst to him, is the last surviving member of a demonic or ghostly family who accost him in his dreams as he sleeps a night beneath a hanged man... these spirits taking the form of scantily clad (and sometimes pretty much topless) women, two of whom both wish to marry him and then...

Okay... you know how some people reviewing novels will sometimes come out with the old cliché that the story is like a set of Russian dolls opening one after the other... well in the rare case of The Saragossa Manuscript, that's exactly what seems to be happening. The narrative springs into one direction and then a second narrative springs from that, as told by someone else without actually concluding the last... and that in turn leads to yet another narrative as told by yet another person... and so on for the almost 3 hour running time of this film. It’s quite strange how a lot of the film is not resolved as such until the last 20 minutes or so... as the metaphorical Russian dolls of the narrative get refolded back inside themselves.

Each time a major character is introduced into the plot of one story... more often than not... that character will then start to recollect his own story in which he meets another character who starts telling him about his own story and so on and so forth until the original story becomes hazy and obscured from view by the vast narrative distance covered in the unfolding of events.

As a narrative, it’s on a par, somewhat, with an elderly family relative who starts telling you a story and then keeps going with it and it keeps shifting and leads to other things and never seems to be quite going anywhere... but it keeps going on and on... and on. The difference with this movie is that all of the little stories which keep being teased out of each other with no real resolution are all quite engaging and certainly entertaining. One of the stories is charged with an air of the supernatural and this allows for a deeply surreal atmosphere permeating the core of the movie. There is also, I have to point out, a fair amount of big, bosomy cleavage to be found in the film and this, coupled with the almost Bunuelian atmosphere created in some of the scenes makes an irresistible combination for this viewer.

The many unfolding narratives do eventually come together on a collision course with different people's stories shifting around a multiple viewpoint in one instance. But my one disappointment with the movie is that it never once gives any closure for the actual readers of the book in Napoleonic times. It’s almost like they’ve been forgotten (or more likely abandoned perhaps by the original writer in his suicide). But even this absence of closure helps to push the downright strangeness of the film and I wonder what would have been the effect of any solid ending on the tail end of the film. I can’t help but think that the power of the movie would have been somehow diminished with an ending that tried to tie up all the issues too neatly... although to be fair this film does have a stab at this with the interpenetration of various narrators storylines over the course of the last 20 minutes or so.

But I’m not even going to attempt to explain the intricacies of the various plot lines to be followed in this movie with any kind of confidence but I will say that there are some periods of this movie where the relationships between the characters and their environments do veer towards bedroom farce than anything more intellectually vigorous... although there’s obviously, bearing in mind the use of a transparent narrative scheme, a lot of talking in this movie.

The Saragossa Manuscript is, then, a vaguely surreal and genuinely amusing period drama with the sometimes quite irritating twist of its perpetual narrative to lead you astray on your journey through the immense running time of the film. It’s a little bit like Last Year In Marienbad in a way...but a little more epic in its scope.

Definitely a film to watch at least once but be prepared to be sitting for the full length of its running time in one hit... I can’t imagine this being a very rewarding experience seen in small doses. Nevertheless... a hearty recommendation from this viewer. I’m very much looking forward to seeing The Hour-Glass Sanatorium, another movie by this director, later in the month.


  1. Hmm... I've never heard of this one but I do believe you've piqued my interest enough to gamble on the 3-hour runtime! I'm always up for something a little weird and surreal! Plus I'm pretty sure I've never seen a Polish film before.

  2. Hey there! Thanks for the kind words.

    Seriously, if you want to get hooked on Polish cinema... check out Kieslowski first! The Double Life of Veronique or A Short Film About Love or Three Colours: Blue. They're all amazing!

  3. Thank you for the recommendations. I think all of those films have been in my netflix queue for ages- I will bump them up to the top!