As this week sees the birthday (3rd or 8th March depending on who you trust) of Jan Potocki, it seems as good excuse as any to recommend one of my very favorite films, The Saragossa Manuscript. Potocki was a Polish count (1761-1815), ethnologist and occultist, most famous today for the novel he wrote in French over the last twenty-odd years of his life, Un Manuscrit trouvé à Saragosse. It is a collection of 66 tales embedded in one another in the fashion of the Thousand and One Nights, in the form purportedly of a manuscript found by a French soldier during the storming of Saragossa, written by a Walloon officer (who turns out to be the Frenchman’s grandfather) about his adventures traveling through Spain’s Sierra Morena mountains, wherein he encounters magical Muslim princesses, gypsies, the inquisition, a cabbalist and the wandering Jew amongst others.
In adapting the novel for the screen in 1965, Polish director Wojiech Has (whose forty-year career is now largely overlooked, even though he ended as provost of Poland’s national film school) retains the structure of tales within tales as one person tells a story to others, itself incorporating further stories told by the characters in the first one, and so on.
The movie is centered around the charismatic presence of Zbigniew Cybulski, the Polish James Dean (a reputation cemented when he died young, by falling under a train) as the “author” of the story, best known for his lead role in Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds; a bit pudgier and without his shades he reveals here slightly confused piggy eyes that manage to convey both a youthful arrogance in the command of any situation, and a vulnerable unsurety at what the hell is going on around him. Like the 1001 Nights, the Decamaron or the Canterbury Tales, some of the stories are magically mysterious, others humorously observational of the foibles of human nature (mostly motivated by love or lust) and the lessons meted out to those who deserve them.
Much of the pleasure of these story collections comes from the atmosphere closer to mythology than literature, compounded by the parable-like character of many of the tales, and The Saragossa Manuscript, novel and film (like Pasolini’s Trilogy Of Life, adapting the three aforementioned) does a superb job of conjuring this semi-magical, semi-timeless world. And they are all of course as much about storytelling as anything else, and the pleasure we take in telling and listening; that pleasure is multiplied the more complex the interweaving of the stories and the more impressive the skill of the storyteller at negotiating the fiendish Chinese box-like structure he has created.
So this is a fantastical tapestry of a movie, quite engrossing, sometimes confusing (as the characters admit!) and so enjoyable that even at 3 hours, one wishes Has had had time to film all of the 66 of the original tales. The black and white camera work is lovely, particularly in the eerie scenes at the beginning, where Cybulski finds himself at a strange dreamlike chamber feast being seduced by the comely princesses, only to awaken again in the desert, a hanging skeleton leering down at him. Its semi-surrealism, chronological contortions and feel of playful picaresque (despite the fact it never geographically actually goes anywhere) make it an unsurprising entry in Buñuel’s top ten, and it was famously Jerry Garcia’s favorite movie; together with Coppola and Scorsese, he was instrumental in having it restored to its full length for re-release in 1999 and so, happily, any decent rental outlet will carry the DVD.