Commonly referred to as Jerry Garcia's favorite film (he put up much of the funding for the film's restoration in the 1990s, but sadly did not live to see its completion), this 1965 adaptation of a precociously formalistic 19th century novel by Jan Potocki is a mindbending succession of people telling stories within other people's stories, going several layers deep (not counting the fact that the film itself is a cinematic telling of Potocki's story). Two opposing soldiers make peace when they happen upon a book recounting one of their ancestors' adventures in Spain, hectored and seduced by a hallucinatory pair of Muslim sisters. This plot thread has an almost tangential bearing for the middle stretch of the film, involving a loquacious gypsy's convoluted recounting of encounters with other yarn-spinners.
If Potocki's novel was a playful send-up of the prevailing literary picaresque cliches of its time, one of the pleasures of Has' film is its irreverent subverting of the period prestige picture (even if it suffers a little bit from the stiff direction endemic to the genre). One may either indulge giddily or else be overwhelmed by the onslaught of aristocratic duels, costume intrigues and chamber seductions, none of which seem to lead to any consequence. If Quentin Tarantino grew up watching Masterpiece Theater nonstop during his formative years, he'd probably make a film like this one. But unlike Tarantino's better efforts, the characters in Saragossa Manuscript don't seem to have much of an interior life and function little beyond their caricatured roles to advance the densely convoluted narrative. And while the elaborate design of the story can be puzzled over and savored in hindsight, the act of watching the film fails to entirely satisfy -- not merely because it's nearly impossible to follow upon an initial screening, but because in being wrapped up in its storytelling acrobatics, the characters and moments of the film don't quite get to breathe. As frustrating as it can be, it offers more than its share of formalist fascinations.
Want to go deeper?
One of the most immediately valuable resources on the film is Martin A. Schell's Saragossa Manuscript Website, if only because it has the most comprehensive scene-by-scene synopsis of the film (it prints out to 15 pages). If you are watching the film for the first or even the second time with a printout of this synopsis, I will be amazed if you are able to get through it without referring to Schell's synopsis multiple times to keep a foothold on the plot. Schell's highly organized synopsis keeps track of the multiple layers of storytelling, even as his explanatory notes complicate matters by floating various interpretations of the actions that obfuscate the different layers of reality in the film.
For a broader contextual appreciation of the film, look no further than The Saragossa Manuscript Virtual Classroom, created by Rice University professor Jan Rybicki for his course on Central Eastern European Film. This site single-handedly makes up for the lack of extras on the otherwise excellently mastered Image DVD, as it offers background information on Jan Potecki's novel, recollections from the film's cast and crew, and even a quiz! (I'm too ashamed to list what I scored)
Jeremy Heilman of Movie Martyr:
Despite the varying tones and narrators that populate The Saragossa Manuscript, it’s tough to deny that the entire film feels as if it’s being governed by a unified directorial style. Has’ film is filled with technically superb shots that track slowly, and a cohesive look that might not be right for this material. To celebrate the variety of voices that storytellers can take, and then shoehorn them visually is a detriment to them. Also omnipresent is the film’s sardonic tone, which never lets us forget that we shouldn’t be taking anything that we see too seriously. Though the film is frequently funny, and the humor is generally welcome, it also disarms the horror in film's frequent forays into the supernatural. The surprising end doesn’t feel that shocking, precisely because so much of the film was obviously constructed to be taken with a grain of salt. Despite this, the impressive achievements of The Saragossa Manuscript make it a singular, distinctive achievement. Few films have anywhere near this much ambition, and as such small complaints are easy to swallow.
Glenn Erickson of DVD Talk dubs the film "part Luis Borges, part Canterbury Tales, and part Playboy's Girls of Warsaw:"
A dissenting review courtesy of Dennis Schwartz:
Among all the flashbacks, Spanish guitar music, pranks pulled, demons uncovered, harem women, mystical characters and ghost tales, there's some magnificent b/w photography and an earnestness to tell a fantastic symbolic epic story. But since it never came together as anything but a potentially great tale and a grueling meditation on reality and illusion, it remained sadly lacking in cohesiveness, logic, purpose and emotional connectiveness. It's a film that saps all your energy when viewing because it demands so much attention, and the rewards of its storytelling were just not there.
As always, Gary Tooze of DVD Beaver gives the detailed rundown on the Image DVD:
Great film, but kind of a sloppy DVD. It is labeled the 'restored widescreen' edition and 'director's cut'. There is a large black border around the image detracting from the horizontal resolution. The film is quite contrasted so the use of the ultra-bright yellow subtitles, although an unfortunate decision, works for normal viewing purposes. I found only a few instances of combing and suspect that the transfer is not progressive. Perhaps I am being to picky - we thank Image Entertainment for bringing this film to light for many. The liner notes are very good and the isolated score is a decent touch. I highly doubt we will ever see this in any better form, so we still recommend the DVD, more so on the strength of the film than the technical qualities of the disc.
DVD Journal offers the following account of the film's long history with Jerry Garcia, leading to its 1999 restoration:
One notable art-house fan was none other than Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, who frequently would look for unexpected surprises in his hometown of San Francisco. It was in 1965 that he and two friends stumbled upon Polish director Wojciech Has' The Saragossa Manuscript at Centro Cedar Cinema in North Beach, and after that night Garcia always said that it was his favorite film, with its head-spinning blend of multiple narratives and sardonic humor. In fact, Garcia was so enamored of The Saragossa Manuscript that he offered the Pacific Film Archive the funding necessary to purchase a print of the film for their holdings, with the only caveat being that he would be allowed to watch it any time he wanted. But it was easier said than done — as archivist Edith Kramer soon discovered, the entire 180-minute cut of the film was nearly impossible to locate, and it was only after a lengthy search that she discovered director Has owned the sole print in its entirety. A restoration was soon undertaken, with support coming from both Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, leading to the film's repertory tour of the U.S. in 1999 and 2000. And with The Saragossa Manuscript now on DVD, all cinema buffs can enjoy the unlimited screening privileges that Jerry Garcia envisioned for himself.
For some contextual info on the film's 1999 theatrical revival, check out how J. Hoberman of the Village Voice compares Saragossa to Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, when both films were released in the same week:
Review by Gary Morris of Bright Lights Film Journal
An academically written piece from The Film Journal examines the film and its director within the context of the surrealist movement (and probably quotes Andre Breton more often than it offers concrete examples from the film in question)
More intriguing is this online discussion of the concept of recursion, with a vivid object lesson taken from the film:
"The hero of the story, one Alphonse van Worden, stumbles across a curious book of engravings:
These engravings describe scenes of hangings, of voluptuous women, and a giant lobster and a squid. As soon as the hero sees them, he knows exactly what they represent, as does the audience. For the book is in fact the story of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa itself as seen thus far, i.e. the precise story van Worden is enacting, i.e the story currently being recounted by the film Rekopis znaleziony w Saragosse.
In the story, we quickly learn that the book had accidentally been left open by Donna Rebecca Uzeda, the sister of the mysterious cabbalist, Don Pedro Uzeda, who immediately hides the volume from van Worden so as to, according to Don Pedro, avoid making the rest of his story impossible to understand.
For van Worden has accidentally stumbled onto the book of his own adventures, where he risks stumbling within that story onto the page where, as in the The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, Alphonse van Worden discovers during his journies a curious book of engravings which recount the tale of Alphone van Worden, and so on and so on."
Footnote: Glenn Kenny identified the recently deceased Polish actor Leon Niemczyk, who plays the gypsy Avorado (below) in Saragossa, as the older male lead in Polanski's Knife in the Water. His last appearance was in none other than David Lynch's Inland Empire, a sister film to Saragossa if there ever was one (not to mention that both films were at least partly shot in Poland).