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"Will undoubtedly send most viewers screaming for the exits, in search of the nearest Sonny Chiba film." So goes Steve Puchalski's review of "The Saragossa Manuscript" in a recent issue of his excellent zine "Shock Cinema." He's probably right.
A Polish art film made in 1965 and barely distributed stateside, TSM has just recently been given a domestic video release in its uncut three-hour version. Possibly the farthest the screen has ever taken the Arabian Nights story-within-a-story motif, this distinctly literary exercise is not a film for the uncommitted or casual viewer. It's a flawed, yet undeniably thought-provoking and sumptuous work. Only the adventurous need apply.
The Package
Special mention must be made of Mieczyslaw Jahoda's impressive b/w photography. The film is a visual feast from start to finish. The widescreen compositions are stunning and the atmospheric photography is even more so. Hard, gritty, and yet appropriately dreamy, Jahoda's work vividly brings the film's abundance of surreal gothic imagery to life. At its best, it's a veritable symphony of light and shadowat its worst, it's just murky.
As befits the film's subject matter, the visuals create a universe of their own, as demanding, exhausting, yet ultimately rewarding as the film itself.top
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* The stories often contain supernatural elements including ghosts, Satanic pacts, dire prophecies, pre "Night of The Living Dead" flesh-gnoshing zombies, and two Tunisian sister-witches who make several appearances.
The Story
Based on a famous French novel by Count Jan Potocki (published in 1813), TSM opens with a soldier finding an old book in the midst of an ongoing battle. The book tells of a young captain traveling through Spain where just about everyone he meets shares a story.* The characters within each story also have a passion for storytelling, as do the characters in each of their stories, until the recursive individual tales eventually parallel, extend or just fill in the blanks of one-another. It all adds up to what can only be described as an intellectual crossword puzzle (so keep your pencils handy).
A major scene toward the end of TSM has a group of characters attempting to sort out the impossibly convoluted narrative they find themselves trapped inside...it's that confusing. Further complicating matters is a recurring motif where the hero awakens under a gallows tree, realizes that the preceding events have all been a dream, and, sure enough, finds himself waking up under that same gallows tree again and again...top

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* Wojciech J. Has' ambition often threatens to devour itself.
The Direction
The director, Wojciech J. Has, certainly deserves points for ambition.* The film has a truly giant cast of characters, boasting at least several dozen speaking parts. Yet it still manages to stay afloat, perhaps because of Has's witty, rather playful tone. In addition, his gift for composition is evident throughout (thankfully, the video is letterboxed).
Unfortunately, Has remains deficient in an important areathat of storytelling. Even without the Arabian Nights motif, the film is plenty confusing. The problem may be Has' obvious fidelity and respect for the original novel. Amusing though TSM is, nearly every scene cries out that this is a literary adaptation. As a result, in spite of the adventurous often horrific goings-on, the film feels more like a history lesson than a swashbuckler.top
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Vital Statistics
The Saragossa Manuscript
(Rekopis Znaleziony w Saragossie)
POLart, B/W, 174 minutes, 1965
Director: Wojciech J. Has
Producer: The Polish Corporation for Film Production
Screenplay: Jerzy Skarzynski, Tadeusz Myszorek
Cinematographer: Mieczyslaw Jahoda
Cast: Zbigniew Cybulski, Iga Cembrzynska, Joanna Jedryka, Kazimierz Opalinskitop

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