Text review and webliography I picked the densest stretch in the film to talk about - it was no picnic but I think it worked out, and I had a little bit of fun with it, as you'll see:
Transcript available after the break:So here we are, about 134 minutes and several layers into the stories within stories that make The Saragossa Manuscript such a narratively unique film. For the past several scenes the roguish, blonde Don Roque Basqueros has been haranguing poor young Lopez Soarez with one seemingly inconsequential tale after another, so Lopez has no option but to challenge Basqueros to a duel just to get him to shut up. The ensuing duel reflects the film's consistently flippant tone towards pre-modern codes of chivalry and honor. Lopez loses out, fainting at the sight of his own blood, and the storytelling continues. This is a pretty verbose film, with not a whole lot of visual cues or edits to punctuate the extended dialogues. No Hollywood style shot reverse shots to underscore the rhythm and flow of a given scene. Judging by appearances this was an uncommonly expensive production and I suppose one way to cut costs was to shoot scenes in long single takes. Though they spared no expense in getting a stunning array of Poland's most beautiful actresses to decorate these exhaustive dialogues. We're about to flash into one of Basqueros' anecdote, and notice how straight the transition is - no dissolves, no music, just a straight cut, which actually does more to blur the lines dividing one level of storytelling from another - it's pretty disorienting if you're not paying full attention to what's going on.We're now watching the romantic anecdote that Basqueros is relating to Lopez Soarez, and we're about to witness a triple interruption -- an interruption of the action being narrated by Basqueros, by an intruder who climbs a window - this is the third or fourth scene in the film involving a man climbing or peeping into a bedroom window, in fact Basqueros had climbed through this same window earlier in this anecdote -- followed by an interruption of the film's own depiction of the anecdote to cut back to the storytelling act -- then followed by an interruption of Basqueros in his act of storytelling by another event. So you can see how this is both a fascinating and frustrating movie to watch, one whose rhythms are as elusive as they are alluring.
Again, note how the rest of the scene plays out in a single medium frame long take, with a slight tracking movement at the end to subtly heighten the mood of the scene, but otherwise it plays pretty straight - some would say it plays flat. Has resists the temptation to have his actors gesticulate broadly as in a stage play, to make up for the lack of close ups. It's a way of challenging the audience to pay attention, to not be cued for visual signs of meaning, and it puts more emphasis on the dialogue to convey information.
So, they've received a letter from Lopez' would be lover Inez, leading them to devise a scheme to have Lopez elope with her. Which leads us to this familiar setup, the lover and his mentor conspiring to reach the girl tucked away in her family perch. Some effective use of chiaroscuro here to heighten the sense of danger, which Has steers into a buoyantly comic direction.
I think one's enjoyment of this scene revolves around one's level of affection for this type of scene, though for me it feels a bit flat and generic. In their respective and generally favorable reviews for the Chicago Reader, both Jonathan Rosenbaum and Fred Camper find a shortcoming in Wojchiech Has' direction, finding that it lacks intensity or personal engagement, and I kind of agree. This reaction has me wondering how Has' direction compares with the likes of Luis Bunuel, whose air of detached surrealist bemusement is clearly being appropriated for this film. Maybe the difference is that in this film, for all of its formalist cleverness, the human stakes seem less intense and have less destructive consequences than in the obessive conflicts to be found in a bunuel film. Here one has to be contented with the playful interweaving and layering of 18th and 19th century narratives, so that the multiple plotlines create delightful collisions, literally and figuratively.
The line shouted shouted by this man identifies him as the nobleman Toledo, since Toledo had shouted this same line at an identical moment 40 minutes prior this this one, when he thought he had heard his dead friend calling through the window. So now we're seeing the same scene from 40 minutes ago, now from Basqueros point of view, and we realize the voice of the dead friend was in fact that of Lopez.
And now we cut back to a larger framing narrative - this series of misadventures with Don Roque was being related by the injured Lopez all along to the gypsy Avadoro. Avadoro rejoices because he now knows the truth about the incident that affected his friend Toledo.
Not sure why Avadoro makes that gesture to the street sweeper. It's an odd moment, one that makes me realize that there aren't a whole lot of subtextual actions or gestures that add another layer to the characters -- the complexities of this film are largely extracted from the convoluted structure of Jan Potocki's source novel. The characters themselves largely consist of their actions and reactions to events, and with the possible exception of Alfonso, whom you'll see in a moment, don't seem to have much time to reflect on their own circumstances. These types of films that are dominated by a highly formalist narrative . It creates an odd effect. While we have a dense and rich story structure whose convolutions can be savored and puzzled over and savored in hindsight, the act of watching the film fails to entirely satisfy -- as a series of moments independent of the concerns of the narrative, the film doesn't really breathe.
But anyway, here's Avadoro telling his guilt-ridden friend Toledo that he was mistaken about his friend's death. And just like that, the penance is over. Incidentally the actor who plays Avarado recently passed away, after his final role in David Lynch's Inland Empire, another rabbit hole of a film parts of which were also shot in Poland.
And now we're another narrative level up in the narrative, as we realize that all that we've seen was part of an elaborate anecdote being told by Avadoro to his dining companions, including Alfonse van worden, the film's main character and commiserator in our own confusion. The ensuing conversation gets as close to the philosophical heart of this film as any other moment, so it's worth listening to:
It seems a bit glib for the film to have Pedro the scientist's utter this final thought, since by the end the film proves to be willfully, irretrievably unresolvable. Its point, if it has one, is more about living with life's uncertainties than in trying to resolve them.