Saturday 29 June 2013

1,001 Films: "The Saragossa Manuscript" (1965)

The Polish epic The Saragossa Manuscript has the distinction of having gone down in history as one of Jerry Garcia's all-time favourite films. Easy to see why: it's a noodly, offbeam costume drama, set to a Penderecki score, which returns to the past as a series of wild nights out from which one might well wake up in a field with a bad head. Unfolding against a pox-blighted landscape dotted with skulls, the narrative has echoes of Tristram Shandy and Arabian Nights (soon to be adapted by Pasolini): instead of straight lines, cause and effect, it proffers diversions and tales within tales, spun out over the course of three (longish) hours.

An officer in the midst of battle is bedazzled by a lavishly illustrated manuscript he finds in an abandoned hovel; his opposite number, sent in to arrest him, finds amid the book's pages the tale of his own late grandfather, who was once taken in at an inn deserted save for a pair of gorgeous, horny women, only to find himself waking up the next morning face down in the dirt. On his quest to work out what happened - and, more specifically, how he might get back in touch with the girls, a plot point that will forever hold its relevance - he too will meet people with stories to tell.

Certain images recur often enough within director Wojciech Has's busy compositions to seem significant: men waving their swords around, women with plunging cleavage who aren't entirely as available as they'd appear, enough ghosts and corpses to remind anyone of their mortality. Some stories prove more engaging than others, and getting your head around its multiple layers isn't always easy: it actually gets more, and not less, convoluted as the final pages near, with practically every character who shows up attempting to get something off their chest. As Jerry might have discovered, it's perhaps best viewed on substances that better allow the viewer to go along with the flow, but it's striking in its determination that nothing - not love, nor war, nor plague, nor, indeed, conventional narrative structure - should get in the way of a good yarn.

The Saragossa Manuscript is available on DVD through Mr. Bongo.

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