Previously available only in a PAL edition from Mr. Bongo Films, Facets is now distributing an all-region NTSC version of Wojciech Has’ perplexing Polish puzzle The Saragossa Manuscript (Rekopis znaleziony w Saragossie) (1965). Based on the novel by Jan Potocki (discovered only after the author’s death in 1815), the film has gathered a cult reputation over the years (spearheaded by The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, as well as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, all of whom helped to finance the film’s restoration in the 1990s), due in part to its cryptic, multi-layered narrative which equally has the power to mesmerize and to confuse. Multiple viewings are not only recommended but required to begin to reassemble its story fragments and characters, which spread out across 18th and 19th Spain and several generations of inter-related (and sometimes incestuous) characters. To quote one character, “All these adventures begin simply. The listener thinks it’ll soon be over, but one story creates another and then another.” A more concise summary of The Saragossa Manuscript is hard to come by.
Like Russian matryoshka dolls, The Saragossa Manuscript is an incessant parade of narratives-within-narratives-within-narratives (and still more). Minor characters overtake the role of narrator, interrupting one story in order to tell their own, which is inevitably interrupted by the start of another story from another narrator. Igniting this labyrinthine progression is the chance encounter between two soldiers of opposing sides during the Napoleanic Wars, both of whom momentarily bond over a dusty, antiquated volume that, as it turns out, recollects the adventures of one of their grandfathers, Captain Alphonse van Worden. Such is the first of many leaps back and forth through time and space.
On a mission to find a quick route to Spain, Alphonse is soon deterred by lynched bodies dotting the landscape, abductors from the Inquisition, and a pair of exotic sisters who not only claim to be his relatives, but seem desperate to throw their bodies upon him and him alone. One glass of wine (from a skull goblet!) later, however, the fantasy has turned into a nightmare, as Alphonse awakens once more beneath the gallows, and next to an overflowing mountain of skulls. (There must be hundreds of skulls throughout this movie—when was the last time you could say that about a movie?) (The Skulls? -Ed.) Unable to tell reality from sorcery, Alphonse seeks to stop this Sisyphusian pattern and continue his mission, and find those girls, if at all possible (and avoid the Inquisition, which goes without saying). Along the way, his acquaintances tell similarly hallucinatory stories, all the while the specter of a certain antique book keeps popping up in different persons’ hands.
Like Luis Buñuel, Wojciech Has grounds his surrealism in realism, because nothing is so bizarre such as that which seems normal. Evocatively decorated sets (from shabby huts to exquisite palaces) and stark landscapes contrast with macabre props (skulls!) and other exotica. Considering the complexity of the narrative, Has’ vision is decidedly clear and precise: smooth, reticent camera movement, and attentive compositions that aid in our attempts to decipher the mystery set before us. For all its doppelgangers and seeming déjà vu, the most consistent theme in The Saragossa Manuscript is ironically its most obvious: storytelling. Whether meeting between bullets and explosions or tables bursting with chicken and wine, the characters all marvel in the splendid intoxication of narrative that affects not just the teller, but particularly the spectator.
Also on DVD this week:
Ella Cinders (1926) (Sunrise Silents, Region 1) – Despite the hegemony of Chaplin/Keaton/Lloyd, silent comedy was a diverse genre whose many talents are still in need of rediscover—and none so much as Colleen Moore. Hailed by Jeanine Basinger as the pinnacle of Moore’s career, this films reworks the Cinderella myth into the story of the lowly stepsister/maid who seeks to escape her abusive family by winning a contest that promises stardom in Hollywood. Recalling the sudden rise of starlet Olive Thomas (whose win made her first a model, then a movie star), Ella Cinders bears no traces of the tragic end that later befell Thomas. Instead, the fantasy is cut short, and reality reinstated. Until that point, however, the film is full of charming gags (particularly one involving independent eye gymnastics that still stumps me) courtesy of Moore.
Full Battle Rattle (2008) (First Run Features, Region 1) – A too-surreal-not-to-be-real look at a military training facility in the Mojave Desert that reconstructs the Middle East, complete with “hired” civilians and insurgents. War has never seemed more like a giant playground than this.
Treeless Mountain (2008) (Oscilloscope Laboratories, Region 1) – This second feature from So Yon Kim (In Between Days) follows two young sisters in South Korea living with their resentful aunt, counting the days until their mother returns by selling cooked grasshoppers and filling their piggy bank. The wonderment and severity of youth has rarely been so evocative.
Winter Soldier (1972) (Milestone/Oscilloscope, Region 1) – Landmark documentary by a group calling themselves the WinterFilm Collective (which included Barbara Kopple) about the testimony of Vietnam veterans (such as John Kerry) who exposed the truths about what they saw, experienced, and committed, during the war.