Based on Jan Potocki’s labyrinthine novel The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Polish film director Wojciech Has' fantastic (and remarkably faithful) movie adaptation is a genuine wonder to behold.
Set during Napoleon’s invasion of Spain, when a French Officer discovers a book filled with curious illustrations and text he cannot read, he becomes so engrossed in the book that when the Spanish Resistance arrive and take him prisoner he barely notices. Together, the captured Officer and the Resistance leader decipher the Saragossa Manuscript and unearth the amazing tale of Alfonso van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski) who, having been separated from his regiment, encounters a litany of remarkable characters and finds himself drawn into a seemingly endless web of stories within stories about demons and succubi, mistaken identities and duels of honour, beautiful princesses and the dead returning to warn the living about the purgatory that awaits them. It is impossible to tell where the lies end and the truth begins, and as van Worden’s companions draw him deeper and deeper into the maze of their imaginations he is unaware that how he ultimately reacts to the stories he is told may ultimately and irrevocably determine his fate.
The Saragossa Manuscript is, like the titular manuscript itself, a wonderful enigma: part fantasy, part action adventure, part gothic romance, part farce, all of it extraordinary. It is, in our opinion, one of the greatest films ever made and we’re not alone in that belief - Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Luis Bunuel and David Lynch are all ranked among its admirers. The Saragossa Manuscript is that rare thing: a masterpiece truly worthy of that description.
For that reason it is exciting to see a Blu-ray edition finally reach UK shores. The film has been available on bare-bones DVD for some time so we had high hopes that the Blu-ray might be something special.
The film itself looks gorgeous; the picture is superb - shot in black and white, every detail crisp and clear; the audio is perfect and serves the film’s tremendous score, by Krzysztof Penderecki, particularly well. But now for the downsides. The placement of the subtitles, which are pretty crucial if you don't understand Polish (an English dub is thankfully not provided), makes them quite difficult to read. But more disappointing than that are the supplements; there are none, not even liner notes, which is an opportunity sadly missed. There is a fascinating analysis to be made of Saragossa which would have made a terrific commentary (Neil Gaiman’s another fan of the film… why not bring him on board?), not to mention that the life of the novel’s author was pretty spectacular as well - after years of adventuring and indulging in various scandalous relationships (there were rumours of incest concerning his second marriage), Jan Potocki committed suicide with a silver bullet he allegedly forged himself from a sugar bowl handle and had blessed by a chaplain. This December will be the 200th anniversary of his death. Surely that alone deserves a fully-loaded special edition of Wojcek Has' masterwork?
But until that special edition comes along (we’re not holding our breath), don't miss this new release. And read the book upon which the film is based. You won't be disappointed in that either.
THE SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: WOJCIECH HAS / SCREENPLAY: TADEUSZ KWIATKOWSKI / STARRING: ZBIGNIEW CYBULSKI, IGA CEMBRZYNSKA, ELZBIETA CZYZEWSKA, GUSTAW HOLOUBEK / RELEASE DATE: SEPTEMBER 7TH