Director: Wojciech Has
By Roderick Heath
In a town in war-torn, Napoleonic-era Spain, a French officer is distracted from the important business of killing when he discovers an old book in a building in which he takes shelter and is fascinated by its old-fashioned illustrations, especially the image of two harem girls in a suggestive embrace. He’s so absorbed by this he pays no attention to the Spaniards who try to take him prisoner, and their officer is soon fascinated enough to sit down and thumb the pages with him. The Spaniard recognises that the book has been annotated by his ancestor, Alfonso Van Worden, and offers his account of what happened to Alfonso (Zbigniew Cybulski) when he tried to make the journey across Spain to Madrid. He followed a dangerous trail in the rugged, depopulated Sierra Morena and stopped at the notorious Venta Quemada, an abandoned, haunted tavern. Within, he found a gateway to a hidden harem populated by two princess sisters, Emina (Iga Cembrzynska) and Zibelda (Joanna Jedryka), and their coterie of lesbian houris, who greeted Alfonso as their cousin and implored him to take up the Islamic faith and marry them both.
That’s just the first 15 minutes of this extravagant product of Polish cinema’s renaissance in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. Resembling up to this point a bawdy soldiers’ fantasy, The Saragossa Manuscript deepens and broadens almost exponentially whilst never losing the sly, teasing edge with which it commences. Saragossa became iconic for some of the cine-literate counterculture of the ‘60s, and directors as diverse as David Lynch, Luis Buñuel, Neil Jordan, Lars Von Trier, and Martin Scorsese had all venerated it. Although it’s a more playful film than any he’s made, it’s not hard to see why it would delight Lynch, nor its influence on the odyssey of bewilderment suffered by the protagonist of Scorsese’s After Hours (1985) or the stories-within-stories structure of Jordan’s The Company of Wolves. Buñuel paid it the unheard-of compliment, for him, of going to see it three times.
The Saragossa Manuscript fits in neatly with other Eastern European works of semi-surreal fantasy, possessing the same open-ended, free-flowing, dry-witted, sexually and intellectually knowing sensibility that often defines the native varieties of magic-realism beyond the Danube. It was, in spite of its antic ’60s disposition, adapted from a 19th century novel by Jan Potocki, and there’s a discernible influence of the rambling experimentalism of Laurence Sterne and the picaresque tradition (which the Spanish setting almost certainly pays tribute to) on the story’s practically post-modern enquiry into the nature of storytelling itself, and how it connects the human world. Alfonso’s accounted travails worsen as he tries to keep the promise he gave to the sisters to not speak of them to anyone, in spite of not knowing whether he merely dreams them; each time he sees them, he ends up drinking a potion that knocks him out, and then awakens alongside the bodies of two hanged bandits, the Zoto brothers. Alfonso is then continually prodded, by the anecdotes of others and by threats and pressure, to divulge his own secret.
When he receives shelter from a stern, but kindly hermit priest (Kazimierz Opalinski), Alfonso listens to the cautionary account of Pasheko (Franciszek Pieczka), a nutty nobleman missing an eye, after falling into a similar situation with two sisters, in this case his father’s young second wife and her sibling. He also met them in the haunted inn before awakening and having his eye gouged out by the ghosts of the Zoto brothers. When he leaves the priest’s house in the morning, Alfonso is arrested by members of the Inquisition, who torture him to learn the whereabouts of the sisters. But the sisters and the Zoto brothers, seemingly very much alive (the bodies on the gibbets were, they claim, shepherds hung as scapegoats) rescue him and spirit him back to the harem. This time, however, the outraged entrance of a sheikh forces Alfonso to again drink the potion, and when he awakens, he falls into the company of an airy, cryptic Cabalist, Pedro Uzeda (Adam Pawlikowski) and an Enlightened intellectual, Velasquez (Gustaw Holoubek), whom the Inquisitors, mistaking him for Alfonso, accidentally try to arrest. Alfonso and Velasquez stay the night at the Cabalist’s villa, as the patron commands his sister Rebecca (Beata Tyszkiewicz) to aid him in distracting Velazquez and hiding from Alfonso the very book from which his memoir is being read, which seems to outlay all he’s going through but not the reasons why, the game needing to be played through to make sense.
As the disparate coterie settles down for dinner in the Cabalist’s enchanted villa, they listen to Señor Avadoro (Leon Niemczyk), a hardy, wise, poor aristocrat, and his anecdotes about his life in Madrid, which eventually brought him into contact with Alfonso’s famous duellist father (Slawomir Lindner). This story requires constant divergence into anecdotes within anecdotes to describe the net of narratives that, as Velazquez perceives, is the nature of the world: Rebecca prods him to recognise that ghosts and poetry are necessary to really capture the essence of life. Avadoro’s insanely complicated, but finally coherent tale explicates a knotty situation that involved his friend Don Toledo (Bogumil Kobiela), a rakish but spiritually fearful gadabout; Don Lopez Suarez (Krzysztof Litwin), the wet-behind-the-ears son of a Cadiz businessman (Stanislaw Igar); Frasquetta (Elzbieta Czyzewska), a conniving coquette; and Don Busqueros (Zdzislaw Maklakiewicz), a tricky but brilliant stage manager of fortunate outcomes.
The Saragossa Manuscript is divided into two distinct halves, and, in some ways, plays as two (or three, or a half-dozen) films in one. The plot that compels the film in the first half is set aside for most of the second as Avadoro tells his stories. Finally, all the pieces have some, occasionally barely discernable, relationship to the core narrative of Alfonso proving his fidelity to the princesses. Whilst the film is about the power of storytelling, it’s also about the spaces between stories, the indescribable, and the necessarily secret. Keeping the princesses’ secret is key to all the pleasures of paradise for Alfonso, but whether he’s in for paradise or damnation is kept cunningly vague until close to the end, when both realms suddenly seem irrelevant to the mystical circle of death and rebirth Alfonso becomes a part of. The cautionary tales he listens to prove to be mere flim-flam, in which moral instructions give way to their opposites, and barriers of time, the soul, and society crumble away. Even the sheikh, whose daughters the princesses are, proves to be the hermit priest, and possibly a version of Alfonso himself.
Potocki, who reportedly wrote the tale to entertain his wife, was fascinated by the occult and took inspiration from the structure of collections like Arabian Nights and Il Decameron, and Has’s adaptation anticipates Pasolini’s versions of those works. The film flows with a stately pace, and, at a hair over three hours, there are points during Saragossa where one wishes for less divergence and more zip. In spite of the teeming bizarreness and humorous flourishes, it’s a film that’s certainly beholden to its literary roots, with the act of telling requiring each anecdote to be set up in terms of teller and listener. Has seems to have worked with great enthusiasm and a not very high budget to recreate Spain on a Polish backlot, but there are few films that blend the matter-of-fact and the mystical with such ease. The inherent sensuality and sliding sense of truth and overcharged mysticism inherent in the tale only find rapturous realistion at carefully spaced intervals, when the film does wield genuinely disorientating creativity, for example, at the very end, when reality loses its shape for Alfonso in the harem cave, and when Alfonso glimpses the sisters, one beckoning as the other sits with his son, reflected in a hovering ornamental mirror.
Has nonetheless offers landscapes of sun-blazed rocks, of the mountains dotted with piles of skulls, rough-hewn gibbets and leering vultures, the luxuriant confines of the princesses’ harem, and the halls of the Cabalist’s villa, which may have had an imagistic influence on many directors who saw them. They employ the same kind of play-act surrealism that Buñuel liked, and the character interactions are expounded in some remarkably composed extended shots that are almost invisible in their physical fluidity.
Saragossa is very much a product of 1964: the mixture of classic literature with historical bawdiness suggests the immediate influence of Tom Jones (1963), with the cast’s females gleefully thrusting forth overflowing décolletages. The humour that runs through the film is constantly ribald and satirical, like Pasheko’s appearance, moaning in madness to alarm Alfonso, giving way to easy conversation such as when the priest tells him to stop wasting time. When the sisters tell him that they’ve never seen a man before, so they and their fellows in the harem “gave each other their love,” with all that implies, Alfonso has to admit: “This is beginning to sound interesting.” One anecdote describes Alfonso’s duellist father getting himself skewered by an opponent in a moment of clumsiness, the two men awkwardly apologising to each other with refined politeness before the father collapses. In another, Busqueros recounts Frasquetta’s punishing her husband for trying to kill her lover by faking a haunting, scaring him with a plethora of tricks, like making her voice resound in an amphora to sound otherworldly, and setting up a jack o’ lantern. The constant gag of Alfonso’s rude, disappointing awakenings after nights with the princesses, has a quality of bitter, but funny disappointment, and, as he admits to them, “Every time I see you two, I worry I won’t ever see you again!”
An undercurrent of menace in the main story is nonetheless apparent, as Alfonso is continually segueing from the fecund wonderland of the harem to the blasted, apocalyptic mountainside and the gibbet’s victims. In flashback, after receiving that near-fatal duelling wound, Alfonso’s father had cried out that he would sell his soul for a drink of water, at which point the woman who became Alfonso’s mother walked out of the hills to give him a drink. Is Alfonso a devil’s child, and are the sisters trying to claim back for the devil the soul he’s still owed? The answer, as the film’s closing moments suggest, is far less medieval and far more pagan: having learnt everything he’s been through was a sham to test his capacity to keep the sisters’ secret, and seeing the possibility that the sheikh is Alfonso’s own mirror image, Alfonso glimpses a world of pure spirit beneath the world he’s in, a refined metaphor for a cosmic chain of fathers and sons in a world with far more multiplicities than mere Manichaeism can contain. Alfonso is finally visited by a vision of the sisters with his child, inspiring him to throw away his memoir and ride back to Venta Quesada, giving in either to beautiful madness or to the call of a richer plain of existence where he’s fulfilled his natural duty of keeping the life cycle going. It’s hard not to cheer him on his way.
Cybulski was often called the Polish James Dean for his electric channelling of postwar angst in his performances for Andrzej Wajda, youth appeal with his trademark dark sunglasses—this is one of the few films where he discarded them—and early, tragic death just three years after making this film. He delivers a terrific performance as Alfonso, partly comic fool of fortune, part swaggering young gay blade, even if he disappears for a long stretch of the second half: he manages to make Alfonso neither overly knowing or ludicrously naïve, leading to the delightful moment where his protests of religious scruples give way to dizzied yelps as the sisters push him back forth and plant voracious kisses on him. He’s not alone in offering hilarious turns, with Kobieda’s Toledo and Maklakiewicz’s Busqueros particularly good, and Czyzewska’s Frasquetta in all her saucy, naughty glory. Niemczyk as Avadoro suggests a Polish Harrison Ford waiting to cut loose with some swarthy swashbuckling, though, unfortunately, he never does. The most exciting formal element is the score provided by Krzysztof Penderecki, the great Polish avant-garde composer; the score mixes delirious snatches of classical forebears with spare, bizarre musique concrete flourishes. The Saragossa Manuscript is a hell of a fun ride. l