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The Saragossa Manuscript

Thanks to the advent of home theaters and the blossoming of the DVD format, one of the time-honored traditions of film junkies is becoming less common — the relentless search for unusual art-house films, which in years past often played in small theaters for a matter of days before disappearing into virtual oblivion. One notable art-house fan was none other than Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, who frequently would look for unexpected surprises in his hometown of San Francisco. It was in 1965 that he and two friends stumbled upon Polish director Wojciech Has' The Saragossa Manuscript at Centro Cedar Cinema in North Beach, and after that night Garcia always said that it was his favorite film, with its head-spinning blend of multiple narratives and sardonic humor. In fact, Garcia was so enamored of The Saragossa Manuscript that he offered the Pacific Film Archive the funding necessary to purchase a print of the film for their holdings, with the only caveat being that he would be allowed to watch it any time he wanted. But it was easier said than done — as archivist Edith Kramer soon discovered, the entire 180-minute cut of the film was nearly impossible to locate, and it was only after a lengthy search that she discovered director Has owned the sole print in its entirety. A restoration was soon undertaken, with support coming from both Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, leading to the film's repertory tour of the U.S. in 1999 and 2000. And with The Saragossa Manuscript now on DVD, all cinema buffs can enjoy the unlimited screening privileges that Jerry Garcia envisioned for himself. Adapted from the novel by Jan Potocki, The Saragossa Manuscript ("Rekopis znaleziony w Saragossie") concerns a Belgian military officer, Capt. Alfons van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski), who is determined to make his way over Spain's mountainous Sierra Modena to Madrid during the Napoleonic Wars. The horseman is accompanied by two soldiers, who warn him that the region is haunted by gypsies and devils, but the adventurous Alfons is unconcerned and plans to pass the night at a mysterious abandoned inn. However, once there he is led to a palatial cavern where two Tunisian princesses (Joanna Jedryka, Slawomir Lindner) claim he is their cousin, and that they intend to marry him. Awaking from the extended dream on a battlefield strewn with corpses, Alfons is unsure what to think of the strange encounter, and eventually he meets an elderly priest (Kazimierz Opalinski) who warns him of devilish temptations, and then introduces him to Pascheco (Franciszek Pieczka), a possessed nobleman with a ghost tale of his own. Continuing on his journey, Alfons is arrested by the Spanish Inquisition (or is he?), meets the princesses again, and then finds his way to the castle of a Spanish gentleman, where an evening of storytelling reveals the strange nature of coincidence and temptation — the sort of temptation Alfons will encounter again before his journey is complete.

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Upon first viewing, many will find The Saragossa Manuscript to be one of the more challenging films out there. Certainly, it's in a foreign language and the actors are unfamiliar (although popular in Poland at the time), but above all it wraps stories within stories at a relentless pace — some recollections, some dreams, some frauds — often abandoning the central character of Alfons van Worden for long stretches as he listens to narratives that peel back like an onion to reveal new characters and new tales. All of the stories have similar themes — love, honor, loyalty, and deception among them — but it's a kaleidoscope of ideas that will not necessarily make sense on first viewing. Why then have so many film fans insisted that they have been seduced by The Saragossa Manuscript the first time they saw it? The sum of its parts may be enigmatic, but each story is portrayed with such cinematic verve that it's hard to turn away. Alfons's initial seduction by the princesses is filled with comic moments, while the howling, insane Pascheco transforms into an erudite noble with his similar account at the haunted inn. Alfons's capture by the Spanish Inquisition leads to a bizarre torture scene and a rousing escape on horseback (which he barely manages with an iron hood on his head). And further nighttime narratives at the Spanish castle reveal how one cabellero finds himself in the midst of several conflicts involving the age-old dramas of lust and unrequited love. It is not necessary to deduce a meaning from The Saragossa Manuscript to enjoy it, and director Wojciech Has handles the lengthy proceedings with some stunning black-and-white cinematography that reveals a gift for spatial composition, and he makes up for a limited budget with a knack for framing events to appear much larger than they actually are. Assisted by an unconventional score from Krzysztof Penderecki (which ranges from classical to downright creepy), Has transforms small settings into vast landscapes — and it's tempting to get lost in the various dreamworlds. Image Entertainment's DVD edition of The Saragossa Manuscript features a clean anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) of the restored black-and-white source print, and it looks marvelous, with only some small collateral flecking and vivid low-contrast detail, rivaling the appearance of many American films from the same era on DVD. The audio is in the original mono (DD 1.0), and features include stills, extensive cast and crew notes, and the wonderful score on an isolated track. Keep-case.

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