The legendary head flick from the ’60s in a polished new print
“Head movies” – those mind-bending epics like 2001 or El Topo that are supposedly best viewed under the influence – frequently require drugs just to get through them. In the case of The Saragossa Manuscript (1965), the equation is reversed; anyone going into this three-hour mind-fuck straight may well come out feeling stoned. Those who like a challenge and can handle a dizzyingly dense structure that’s more puzzle than plot will be well rewarded. A great score by Krzystof Penderecki and gorgeous cinematography (black-and-white Cinemascope) keep the ear and eye riveted even while the brain is in meltdown.
Directed by the well-regarded Wojciech Has, the film is an adaptation of at least part of a legendary, massive novel by Count Jan Potocki (1761-1815). Potocki’s resume would take almost as long to read as the film takes to watch. Sources say he was a noted travel writer, “novice king of Malta” (whatever that is), Egyptologist, occultist, historian, balloonist, linguist, melancholic, and eventual suicide at age 54. The Manuscript Found in Saragossa (1813) was his crowning work, favorably compared by aficionados to The Decameron and The Arabian Nights for its rich folkloric elements, supernatural motifs, bawdy humor, and surreal touches. It also contains heavy doses of Jewish mysticism and scientific theory of the day (including discussions of mathematics and philosophy). Like its predecessors it has a very modern, labyrinthine, story-within-a-story structure, but it’s even more multilayered, so much so that a slide rule and a scratch pad are advisable for keeping track of who’s who and what’s what. If the movie is any indication, there are as many as five levels of drilldown in some sequences, with one person telling a story about another person, who then tells another story about someone else, who then – you get the idea.
The film version is reputedly a respectful, mostly faithful adaptation of this literary cat’s cradle. Zbigniew Cybulski stars as the charming Alphonse van Worden, a young Belgian captain of the Walloon guards traveling through the arid landscapes of 17th-century Spain on his way to Madrid. In an abandoned house he becomes entranced by an old book (the “Saragossa manuscript”) that chronicles the life of one of his famous ancestors. He becomes so spellbound that he fails to notice the group of enemy soldiers that have come to arrest him. In the first of many twists, they too succumb to the book’s spell, and the action moves into a series of dreamlike adventures starring Alphonse and a gallery of memorable characters. In the first of these adventures, he meets two gorgeous princesses – actually ghosts – who alternately terrorize and seduce him, finally proposing a series of tests he must pass. On the verge of succumbing to their charms, he suddenly awakens next to a gallows on which two corpses are hung. This kind of collision of the horrific with the sensual permeates the film.
This scene only occupies the first ten or fifteen minutes of the film, but it sets the tone for what follows. From there, the story escalates into a series of increasingly complex enchantments. Alphonse is captured by the Inquisition in a fetish-drenched sequence, complete with metal masks and a rack, that will warm the hearts of sadomasochists. He fends off ghosts, fights duels, frequently wakes up to find himself in the shadow of the gallows, and best of all, listens as we do to a series of richly detailed stories of cuckolded husbands, treacherous business rivals, and deals with the devil told by those he encounters in what may or may not be a dream. The film has a wonderfully modern sensibility, by turns leisurely and discursive, and energetic and intense. It reaches a comic-ironic apotheosis when Alphonse stops the narrative to try to figure out where they are in a particularly complex story: “Frasquita told her story to Busquenos. He told it to Lopez Soarez, who in turn told it to Senor Avadoro. It’s enough to drive you crazy.”
It’s no surprise that this was a counterculture classic and Jerry Garcia’s favorite movie. (He, along with Martin Scorsese, put up part of the money to have it restored to its full length.) Besides the convoluted structure, characters pop in and out of each other’s stories with the random logic of a trip. The sexy ghost-princesses meander in and out of several of the other stories, moving mysteriously in the background or popping up in other guises. Sudden, startling imagery like Alphonse reaching out to touch one of these ghostly gals but finding his hand on a corpse recur throughout. And of course no one is who he or she seems. The kindly hermit priest who takes Alphonse in and counsels him on how to avoid perdition turns out to be a sheik who claims he’s arranged all the scenarios and hired the players to enact them in the interest of Alphonse’s enlightenment. The priest’s howling, allegedly demon-possessed assistant Pasheko, whose eye is removed and eaten by ghouls in a gruesome scene, is revealed as an acrobat who was blinded in a fall.
Director Has also deserves praise for bringing Potocki’s droll anti-clericalism to the fore. When the Inquisitors grab Alphonse, they’re amusingly blasé about their methods: “His confession,” one of them says, “though slightly forced, has its advantages.” Bracing, too, is the film’s charming sense of the value of camaraderie. During one of the later stories – a Byzantine affair involving rival bankers, a naïve son, a coquettish daughter, and a trickster who manipulates them all for his own amusement – one of the characters says “Good company is more precious than wealth or black magic.” There’s plenty of wealth and black magic in the film, but it’s also enthralling good company.