The Saragossa Manuscript (1965) Poster

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Complex and dazzling
Levana4 February 1999
"The Saragossa Manuscript" is a brilliant work, by turns (or simultaneously) mysteriously spooky and wildly funny. Its unusually long running time does not get tiring because it is so full of variety and unfailing inventiveness. The stories of a crowd of distinctive characters intermesh into a unity that is not obvious at first, but slowly grows clearer -- one of the ideas that can be gathered from the movie is precisely that of the interdependence of people who would seem to have little in common, whether Christian, Jew or Moslem. It's a profoundly humanistic idea.

This theme is the contribution of the novelist Jan Potocki, a Pole living in France when he wrote "The Manuscript Found in Saragossa" at the beginning of the 19th century. One of the main strengths of the movie is also mainly Potocki's, the creation of a Spain of dreams, full of romance, mystery, lively humor, and eroticism (the novel found difficulty in being published originally, and the author was criticised for his libertinism). As vividly brought to the screen by Wojcech Has, this Spain is a place that a viewer will want to return to repeatedly.

Has, however, strongly emphasized the phantasmagorical elements in the novel. The atmosphere that he creates, and the visual style that supports it, are another major asset of the movie. The images of the haunted Sierra Morena are consistently touched with strangeness but not overburdened. I think especially of one shot where the tumbled white rocks look just like bleached bones -- an effect that wouldn't have worked so well if the movie had been in color. In keeping with this shift of emphasis, the adaptation contributes a new ending to the story, which is entirely appropriate; it comes from a distinctly twentieth-century sensibility.

Add to this a uniformly skillful cast (special recognition goes to Slawomir Lindner as the elder Van Worden) and you have a movie that I can't recommend strongly enough.
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Unusual, imaginative classic of fantastic cinema
Alex Klotz19 March 2003
Although I usually try to avoid very long movies, I was glad I took the time to watch this one. Based on Jan Potocki's marvelous, somewhat `enlightened Gothic novel', this is another congenial literary adaptation of Director Wojciech Has; it's a shame this is the only one of his movies easily available. The film tells of a young soldier traveling through Spain and meeting a lot of strange characters that all have their own stories to relate. Of course, the series of interlocked stories-within-stories may appear complicated, but there is always the opportunity to just lean back and enjoy the story being told right now; or to look at the diagram in the great DVD Edition to make things clear. And surely there doesn't seem to be a central thread if you don't watch the end of the movie. (How useful would a review of, say `The usual Suspects' be, if you didn't watch the ending?) And, by the way, there are a lot more stories and framing devices in the novel… It's no wonder that (Danger! Pretentious name-dropping ahead) this is one of Luis Bunuel's favorite movies, the structure of some of his later films, especially `The Milky Way' and `The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie' bear a lot of resemblance. And there's a scene in `Monty Python's Life of Brian', in which the Pasheko – Character reappears. (It's too close to be a coincidence.) To cut a long story short: If you prefer films with a straight forward narration; this one's obviously not for you. But if you're open minded and like to see a highly original, imaginative epic, try it.
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Keys to understanding the film... and the DVD
benoit-329 November 2006
"The Saragossa Manuscript" is a very entertaining film that two or three viewings will eventually allow you to understand fully. Its style mixes an easy congeniality and libertine spirit à la "Tom Jones" (1963) with elements of sophisticated comedy and slapstick commedia dell'arte, all delivered by an expert cast and imbued with a tangible sense of fun and mystery.

Its story centers around the efforts by a brave officer in mid-XVIIIth Century Spain to distance himself from ghosts or evil spirits that visit him every night and take the form of two charming Muslim sisters who want to be his lovers and bear his children, even in succubi form, and insist that he convert to Islam. Those erotic (and heretic) reveries also have something to do with devilry and all things forbidden and his encounters with those women are encouraged by the mysterious figure of the Cabalist (another forbidden science) and his sister Rebecca and severely repressed by roaming members of the Catholic Inquisition. This framing story is the pretext for a series of very involving and amusing moral tales told in flashback by several participants, who all echo each other and whose moral seems to be that all religious and social prohibitions and ghost stories should be taken with a grain of salt. In this ocean of mystery and gothicism stands the figure of Don Pedro Velasquez, a mathematician who befriends the hero and who seems the only character to believe in the cold light of reason (foreshadowings of Polanski's "The Fearless Vampire Killers").

After several viewings, the only point in the film which remains mysterious is why Frasqueta's lover (Pena Flor) should appear with a bloodied face when he climbs in her bedroom through a window, a fact the viewer has to provide his own backstory for and which could be evidence that the original film was even longer than the 182 minutes at which it clocks in on the restored DVD edition. (Personal theory: Pena Flor really was Frasqueta's lover and the band of thugs Frasqueta hired to deceive her husband into believing he had paid to have his wife's lover killed really did attempt to kill him before he paid them to kill her husband instead.) Well, that and the fact that Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, an early fan of the film and one the persons responsible for its restoration, was fond of quoting a scene from the film that doesn't seem to exist anymore (a character's confrontation with Death at the foot of his bed, which, according to DVD Savant, could come from the 1960 Mexican film "Macario")...

A WORD ABOUT THE DVD: This film was restored thanks to the efforts and money of Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and the above-mentioned Jerry Garcia, and the collaboration of the director. It was shot in Dyaliscope, the French CinemaScope equivalent, which is always projected at a standard 2.35:1 ratio. This "enhanced for widescreen TVs" DVD shows an image with a ratio of 2:1, which means that the picture information is still squeezed by a ratio of 15 % in relation to the way it should be shown normally. In this presentation, the picture is "fish-eyed" and the characters and animals appear too slim. There is no way around this problem if you watch it on a 4:3 television set. However, if you own a widescreen TV, you can set-up your DVD player as for a standard 4:3 TV monitor and gently unsqueeze the resulting picture with any one of the "cheater" modes provided by your TV model to approximate a 2:35 presentation. There is no way of knowing if this drawback is the result of simple ignorance (mistaking the 2:1 squeeze of Dyaliscope with a 2:1 projection ratio) or of a compromise allowing to use the greater part of the TV screen in both 4:3 and 1.77:1 TV sets. It took me along time to figure out this problem and I am glad to share this little trick with you.
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just watch it
super_geisha3 February 2004
i have a really low threshold for boredom, and while i saw this on the bigscreen, in a real theatre, i was spellbound. i didnt know what to expect, but it was mesmerising. i didnt try intellectualise it, but it was impossible to pick apart. just see it. put your head into the time period that the story is trying to convey. caveat: i think apocalypse now is an amazing film. redux was great. when i walked out of the theatre after seeing saragossa, i couldnt speak for hours. do yourself a favor and at least give this one a shot. try and see it on the big screen if you can.
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A genre piece in a genre of its own
Bobbyh-27 June 2000
Oh boy. I first saw this about thirty years ago, and have caught it twice since. Other than a slight reservation concerning its length, I find it a delight, and would love to see it again. In form, it resembles the Gothic novel that was popular at the turn of the 19th century, with its nested plots and bizarre ambiances and characters. The novel on which it's based was recently published in an English translation, and proves to be a delight as well--literate, witty, and dizzying. The photography and design of this film are breathtaking, and I think it's definitely worth a viewing, if, as, and when it comes around. I advise strongly against looking for Inner Meaning. It's kind of like seeing an exhibition of Magritte paintings; sometimes a flaming tuba is just a flaming tuba.
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Love it or hate it, it's unique.
birck26 August 2004
The comments on this film seem evenly distributed between favor and disfavor. At this date, I can't understand why anyone would not like it, but that's me. I first saw it in 1967, while I was in college. I loved it, and went so far as to locate and purchase the book(s) from which it was adapted. And that was before the internet, and Amazon, and Bookfinder. One of the books I didn't manage to get until I got to London. Reading it, I was amazed to realize that the film actually includes remnants of every story in the book(s): when, for example, Alphonso opens a door to find a bewigged scholar interrupted while declaiming "...Then the first skeleton tore out his own arm-bone and began hitting me with it..."-the whole story is there in the book, i.e., what the skeletons were doing there in the first place. The books, Manuscript Found At Saragossa and the New Decameron, are rightly considered Literary Treasures of Poland, along the lines of Notre-Dame á Paris in France, War and Peace in Russia, or Moby-Dick here. It's about stories and storytelling.

By the end of the film, to say the least, the viewer has been presented with a convincing picture of sixteenth-century Europe from different angles, and it's safe to say that no other film, before or since, in color or Black-and-white, has done it better.
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co_iww8 March 2001
Before I start gushing about this film, keep in mind that I rarely see European (let alone Polish) films, and I rarely see "vintage" films. The few "art houses" in Denver typically show films, like Crouching Tiger, which are intended for US audiences and distributed to regular first-run theaters in most major cities. Since I don't study the listings religiously, nor do I always have 10 bucks to blow on a film, I rarely encounter films that challenge the norms of either mainstream Hollywood or the recent Hollywood-controlled "indie" film industry. Needless to say, this film floored me. I was immediately amazed by the vividness of its black-and-white imagery. While b/w has become an overused technique to depict bleakness, this film reminded me just how little all the high-tech Hollywood production methods actually use the medium of film itself to its fully expressive potential. This film is visually stunning in its images' depth, textures, and light. The next thing that struck me was how outrageously funny the film is--funnier than I could have imagined a 40 year-old movie from a culture about which I know almost knowing. Three hours later, I didn't want the film to end. Its cycles of absurd story lines, surreal dialog, and engaging imagery were utterly new and engrossing to me. Despite my Luddite tendencies, I have vowed that when this film is released on DVD, I'll go out and get a player just to see this film over and over again. Perhaps then I'll have more critical comments--for now, just WOW.
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What a film!!!
1966nm3 March 2004
I saw this one on TV many years ago and I was captivated! In the second change I had, I recored it on video and when my cassete was destroyed, I made a hopeless search in the internet, only to find that soon I could buy it on DVD. And I did. I just can't get away from this masterpiece of cinematography. Based on a book, clearly inspired from the 1001 nights, telling a story inside a story, inside a story (I love this), with a lot of Jorge Louis Borges magic I guess, celebrates the true joy of cinema, where nothing is more important that watch the film itself! The story is incredible, but just, doesn't matter! All I want with this one, is to see it again and again, not trying to understand the dark parts of it, or the connections between the stories, or to find my way out of the labyrinth that is build around you as you continue more inside its plot, but just to loose myself in it, be a part of it, and not wish to get out.

Not for everyone, but probably a great choice if you don't like Chuck Norris too much!
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Geometric Cosmology
tedg8 August 2002
Warning: Spoilers
Spoilers herein.

By now, you already know that this is a collection of stories and what makes it novel is the relationship among those stories. Many stories have stories within them. Many stories are mirrored. Characters and sets in one story appear in another, sometimes in different roles. Most stories are about storytelling or truth in some form. Symmetries abound. Snakes and skulls are constant, as is the gallows.

Another constant thread is the nature of of the character, whether he is `real' or a character from some further nesting. (This is a common theme in other films as well.) The metaphor of `birth' is used. Everything relates to the manuscript, which here is primarily composed of images, and which is written in at several levels.

Superficially, it appears to be a cleverly constructed ramble, and its arbitrariness is part of the charm. That's why dopes like Jerry Garcia like it. But the story is far better than that.

The writer of the book (which is both the book on which this is based and the book within the film) was a serious cabalist, student of the Jewish cabala as created in Spain and moved to Poland when the Jews were kicked out. There, at the end of the 18th century, it became christianized and simultaneously in France linked with Tarot. The core notion was that the world was a story told within a story with an story and so on for ten or eleven layers until you had nothing as the origin. A very specific geometric symbol related these storyworlds, primarily emphasizing various internal dualities.

Scholars of this geometric cosmology recognize this as the first book to explore what was to become a common theme: a curious soul starting at the bottom of this `Tree of Life' and moving up in a specific way through the generators of each storyworld, ultimately reaching enlightenment. The stories presented in the book and rewritten here are not a random ramble, but highly structured based on this purportedly ancient geometric cosmology.

This book and film has tremendous historical significance. It is a template used previously by Bulwer-Lytton (`Ernest Maltravers' and `Zanoni'), then Lewis Carroll and eventually James Joyce. It was copied by Fowles as `the Magus' and thence influenced the structure of the Beatles' `White Album.'

In recent film history, it was restructured as a book and then a more successful film by the greatest Polish filmmaker, Roman Polanski, as `the Ninth Gate.' All of these follow the same precise structure.

Cinematically, this is no masterpiece. It borrows its stance from `Seventh Seal' which has some of the same notions but without the strict structure. From that stance, a comic self-parody is adopted. The score is wonderful.

Ted's Evaluation -- 4 of 4: Every visually literate person should experience this.
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a sophisticated film brimming with mystical and occult elements
brzostek23 June 2012
People have loved storytelling since the beginning of time. Stories that captivate us, stories that give us chills, stories that excite us, and stories that make us think are all great, but some stories do all of these such as The Saragossa Manuscript (Rekopis znaleziony w Saragossie). The Saragossa Manuscript is quite possibly one of the best Polish films ever made and is one of my favorites. Based on the novel written by Jan Potocki, this classic Polish movie directed by Wojciech Has is not straightforward, but rather resembles a complicated tapestry.

During the Napoleonic wars in Spain, two soldiers from opposing sides become fascinated by the same object. A French officer finds a manuscript on the second floor of a tavern, but the town is soon captured by the Spanish. The Spaniard, seeing the importance of the tome, translates it to the Frenchman who is unable to read the book as it is written in Spanish. The book describes the adventures of one of the Spaniard's ancestors, Alfonse Van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski). Humorously, when the Spanish troops tell their commander "we are being surrounded" he only tells them "close the door, you are letting in a draft." Alfonse Van Worden is trying to pass the Sierra Morena Mountains of Spain in the 18th century on his way to Madrid. But his passage is no simple task, as ghosts, gypsies and inquisitors complicate his voyage. On the hillside is an inn that is cared for by people who too afraid to spend the night there themselves. Van Worden disregards the superstitious people, only to be taken to a basement of the inn by a mysterious woman. In the basement, he meets two beautiful Moorish princesses that want him to be their husband, but quickly make him drink from a chalice made from a human skull. He wakes up on the hillside some distance from the inn near two hanging men with many skulls strewn about the ground.

When Van Worden wakes up, he makes his best effort to continue to Madrid, but ends up meeting a number of people and is always delayed. The people he meets tell him their story, and the people in the story tell their story also. Like a nesting egg, the movie becomes a story in a story in a story. The stories interlink and overlap, each filling us in with details the others where not aware of. While it nearly resembles a horror with creepy ghosts and ghouls, the story is also amusing and funny with curious tales of exploits and adventures. The Saragossa Manuscript also has en erotic side with gorgeous women at every turn. While parts of the story resemble a horror, the rest is like a romance or even a comedy. The Saragossa Manuscript is a sophisticated film brimming with mystical and occult elements.
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Intertwined tales plucked from novel "Manuscript FOund in Saragossa"
shadowmage94 January 2006
Beautifully executed frame tale in the tradition of Decameron and Canterbury tales. the network of stories presented during Napoleonic Wars weaves together the tales and adventures of a young officer Alfons van Worden in the king's Walloon guard on his way to Corduba during the end of the 18th century.This is one of my favorite movies and is a masterpiece of film narrative. the story meshes together the tales of a cast of colorful characters met by the protagonist Alfons van Worden. Top performances from some of Poland's renowned actors and some aspiring actors who owe the success of their later careers in no small part to their performances in this movie.
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Solving of the mystery
stu-6427 May 1999
I last saw this film at the Electric Cinema Club in Portobello Rd London over 25 years ago, yet it had such an impact on me I can still remember it clearly and with great affection. It certainly is a film that can on each viewing reveal something new. Does anyone know if it would be available on video? After 25+ years of thinking about it I may be able to solve the mystery.
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The metaphysics of Don Quixote and Escher meet in the Twilight Zone
rserrano28 February 2008
Perhaps more than any other film, Saragossa Manuscript begs for multiple viewings. A fascinating way to watch this movie is to simply see it as space unfolding. At the highest level the structure is a set of interconnected stories which loop back on one another. Each story is a separate, nested world with a narrator who serves as a portal. This is not unlike current theories in physics about the multiverse, with separate worlds that wormhole into and out of one another, connected by black holes.

Also, the frame by frame construction of the film is deeply spacial. The setting of the Sierra Morena seems to have not a single flat surface and the camera is often askew to accentuate this. Elaborately constructed sets are filled with boundaries and connections. Characters interact thru barred windows and seem to constantly flow into and out of doorways and windows. There are many long narrow corridors and alley ways. The camera captures ascending and descending stairways and shots are wide angle to create a feeling of great depth. Often action is focused on a figure in the foreground while another character secretly slips into or out of the room thru a doorway in some distant corner.

This unsettling and masterful manipulation of space is in large part what propel the story so convincingly, since the many boundaries and connections determine which relationships are consummated and which things remain forever out of reach.
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Sarogassa see it
FilmFlaneur26 June 2008
Influenced perhaps by such works as The Canterbury Tales, Don Quixote, and The Arabian Nights, 'The Manuscript Found In Saragossa' is seen as one of the monuments of 19th century European literary culture. In recent years arguably it has influenced such writers as John Barth and Robert Irwin (The Arabian Nightmare for instance). A baroque work, full of stories, of stories within stories, and again stories within stories within stories, featuring gypsies, Moors, scientists, occultists, lesbian princesses, the spirits of hanged men, the Wandering Jew and etc, with characters interchanging and reappearing in different guises, Potocki's book was never going to be an easy translation to screen.

The task was taken up in 1965 by director Wojciech Has and writer Tadeusz Kwiatkowski, and the results in his original cut ran to over three hours. Seen today, and belatedly issued in the UK, The Saragossa Manuscript is a remarkable discovery, one that any serious cinephile should experience at least once.

The story concerns one Alphonse von Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski - an actor more familiar to some perhaps from Wadja's films like Ashes And Diamonds) and his attempts to travel through the Sierra Morena to Madrid in the 18th century: a milieu redolent, at first, of the dashing bawdry of Tom Jones but which soon blazes a complex metaphysical path of its own. His story is found by a Belgian officer in the embattled Spanish town of Saragossa, in the form of a manuscript with alluring pictures, left in an abandoned house. Von Worden, it turns out was this discoverer's grandfather, it's his thwarted attempts at making progress, and the confusing diversions which interrupt the way, as well as their final effects upon him, that make up the protracted story which follows.

The Saragossa Manuscript falls into to two parts, set over five days, both of which include von Worden (the second half less so) who is frequently just as disorientated as the viewer as the narrative unfolds. The first part centres largely around a haunted inn, where von Worden is seduced by a pair of alluring Moorish princesses, confronted by the demonic ghosts of hanged men, lectured by a hermit and his Igor-like assistant, captured outside by the Inquisition and so on... usually incidents concluding with our unlucky hero disappointed, left to awake next morning chastened but still unlearned at the foot of the gallows.

One of the most interesting things about the film is that, although days are shown passing in regular fashion, von Worden's experiences blur and conflate time into one disorientating experience, so that the passing of hours eventually has no meaning. Instead the audience is confronted with a circular narrative and narratives therein, unfolding like a series of repeatedly opened Russian dolls. How transient life and ambition can be we realise; and how little we really understand about the world we are in, ultimately presented here as a mirror of deception, rather than a veil of truth.

Action in the slightly longer part two settles down a suspiciously cabalistic manor and a vaguely Faustian sanctum, which shortly accommodates story telling gypsies, perhaps those after all to whom the incompetent Inquisition seen earlier ought be better directed. The events told here are more related to love and honour than before, being largely recollections of events in Madrid, but which reach new convolutions as each new character in a yarn has a further account to add to the already swelling narrative flow. Clearly to be seen in the light of the themes of sic transit gloria of the first part, the semi-farcical love trysts of part two seem less weighty and morally significant, although by the end of the film its clear that the effects upon the individual of a final connectiveness cannot be avoided.

As suggested above, The Saragossa Manuscript suggests a lot and at length about what's real and which is a dream, and then of taking life as a necessary mixture of both. The transience of human concerns, and an ultimate, underlying interconnnectedness calls into account the foundations of human reason. Whether or not such topics are given justice, even in the full three hours of screen time, and in a narrative some have seen as more confusing than deeply profound is another matter. As some critics have noticed, there's a sardonic air to Has' movie which detracts from the seriousness of it all, and which allows the film's creators a detachment from their subject matter.

Such a wholly modern interjection of tone is distinct from the original. Cybulski's hero is a man who rarely, if ever, learns the lessons he is so grievously taught, even while they are repeated to him in different ways. This while the semi-farcical, if complicated, love interests of the second part generally reflect a bawdy ignorance of greater matters, rather than insisting upon their inevitable presence. (Interestingly, having said that, this adaptation actually finishes on a darker note than the novel, where von Worden is rewarded at the end, presumably having been successfully initiated into life's mysteries).

But one can see why the film continues to attract admirers; shot in widescreen black and white, frequently making use of a memorably stone-broken, skull-littered, undulating landscape (the uncertain geographies of which echo the manifest internal confusions of von Worden) with bleached bone-coloured rocks, claustrophobic inns and the litter of the charnel house, the first half in particular is especially striking. The director also favours slow tracking movements through his cluttered landscapes. Perhaps these suggest the journey of an objective observer, who eventually hopes to cut through complexity to a revelation, just as the camera crawls through visual confusion to find its final, explicable, subject.
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Like...Oh Wow, Man (what a trip)
druid333-130 March 2009
'Rekopis znaleziony w Saragossie' (or as it is also known as,'The Saragossa Manuscript)is one of those strange little films that originally had a limited release in the U.S. (and a version cut by just under an that). This film,however came to the attention of Grateful Dead founder,Jerry Garcia,while attending a screening (in a questionable state of mind,I'm sure),back in 1966. He was so blown away by this film that he wanted others to see it,but that open window of opportunity was closed by the time he alerted his friends. He searched for years to get the American rights to distribute it out of his own pocket. Sadly,by the time of his death,news had arrived from Europe that a 35mm print of the original directors cut (which ran just over three hours)had become available. In memory of Garcia,the film's American distribution was handled by Francis Coppola & Steven Spielberg. Just why did Jerry Garcia go crackers over this film? Well,for one, this is a very surreal & psychedelic film,taken from the 19th century novel by Jan Potocki,which is about a very strange book that falls into the hands of a Flemish Captain,during the Napoleonic wars,and the effects it has on him (as well as anybody else who comes upon it). Wojciech Has directs a top notch cast of Polish actors,including the great Zbigniew Cybulski (star of many a prolific Polish film,including Wajda's Ashes & Diamonds,and others). Tadeusz Kwiatkowski's screenplay brings out the best in what is probably a difficult novel to make the transfer to the screen. This is the kind of film that one does not need the use of psychedelic drugs to get the utmost effect from (but probably wouldn't hurt). Not rated by the MPAA, this film does contain a bit of graphic violence,and a bit of mature content.
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Did I miss something?
gengar84329 March 2008
I am a lover of spooky movies. Let me say, without intellectual mumbo-jumbo, that the scenes involving the succubus sisters with Alfredo are absolutely terrific, with the most incredible mood, surreal atmosphere, and gorgeous women.

However (yes, there is a 'however'... or two)... the film doesn't take this to its logical conclusion. While some may find the incessant flashback-into-present origami/napkin-folding storyline to be exhilarating, I found it to be tedious. Blame it on my film-watching habits, if you like... when a movie is interesting, and I begin to get involved and engrossed, I'm not inclined to being ripped out of the hypnotic state I'm in. If you want to say that the director meant it this way, or that "it follows the book," that still doesn't excuse setting the table and then not serving dinner.

I *did* watch the entire 3-hour director's cut, and I *did* understand every aspect of the film, all of the subplots, and the tie-em-up finale. I "get" the black-and-white significance, and even "dug" the Polish actors as caballeros. But it just didn't move me.

Particularly annoying was the subplot concerning Suarez and Moro. Call me lowbrow, but the slapstick antics of that segment did not cause me to chuckle, but to bristle.

Perhaps my biggest disappointment came after I had already accepted that the film would drag, but promised myself that some life-altering messages might be thrust my way. Alas for me, none did. No humanist credo, no foibles to examine. Just a few vague moments of spine-tingling thrills, and some very pretty females. Not enough to warrant 180 minutes.

So, get your index finger ready to give me a low score, because I don't recommend this as a chiller, nor a comedy, nor even an "event," but only for aficionados of puzzling foreign films.
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Less well known than deserves!
folkloro21 April 2013
"The Saragossa Manuscript" is certainly an authentic masterpiece. Although its' duration is nearly 3 hours, the interest of the spectator does not fade in any part of the film. It is a fairy tale which contains several stories, something that could cause a confusion to the viewer. Here, we speak of something completely different. The narration flows so well that leads to the interference of the sub stories naturally, with no need of cheap tricks, which are very often used by many modern filmmakers at their vain attempts to imitate "Pulp Fiction". The artistic part is excellent and acting is brilliant from all the participants. Highly recommended!!! Νevertheless, its' fame is not so well spread as it deserves and possibilities of bumping into it is only at late night screenings of a national TV network or at a marginal cinema theater.
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The Pleasure of Adventures
Eumenides_014 November 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Wojciech Has' movie of The Hourglass Sanatorium introduced me to a new world of cinema in which the camera digresses from plot and characterisation to revel in images filled with wonder, horror, strangeness and mystery, that speak about human existence in symbolic instead of literal ways. Since watching it, I've immersed myself in this type of cinema and discovered masters like Jan Svankmajer, the Brothers Quay, and Jean Cocteau, people who bring cinema closer to poetry. So I watched the The Saragossa Manuscript with great anticipation.

Based on a Polish novel by Jan Potocki, the movie shares many of the novel's splendours but also many of its flaws. Potocki tried to revive the tradition of Cervantes and Rabelais and The Arabian Nights in making his novel a collection of adventures, of stories that digressed into other stories, more concerned with telling action than description or psychology. Every imaginable genre exists within the covers of the novel, and the ending is unimportant. In fact it's the type of book that, by its nature, couldn't have one.

Has has the task of translating the sixty-six days of the novel into a series of days, leaving much out of the story. I'm especially sorry that one of my favourite characters, the Wandering Jew, with his stories about ancient times and meeting Christ, were cut out. So what we're left are the bare bones, the skeleton of the novel. We follow Alfonse van Worden as he travels through Sierra Morena, a sinister deserted place, to Madrid to take up a post as Captain of the Walloon guard. In this place of magic and hanged men and piles of skulls and vultures feeding on carrion, Alfonse meets several people who trade stories: Muslim princesses who want to marry him; a Cabalist and his sister; a Geometer; a Gypsy chief; a possessed man and the priest trying to exorcise him. They're tales about honor and courage, and love stories. Some are eerily similar, like everyone's telling the same story with variations, and slowly we realise something's fishy. In the novel what follows is the ultimate conspiracy, to put hacks like Dan Brown to shame. Alas, the movie cannot indulge in the details of the long novel and tries its best to give a glimpse of the conspiracy that surrounds Alfonse and this cast of strange characters delaying his arrival in Madrid.

Although the movie is never as conclusive as the novel, it does share its sense of adventure, since some of the best stories were picked for the movie. So we witness duels, romance, murders, family feuds: the stuff that we no longer find in modern novels.

Also Wojciech Has possesses an eye for great visuals, and paints Sierra Morena as a creepy place full of mystery and menace; you never know when the ghosts of hanged men or the inquisition will shows up to kill you. Its cliffs and rocks compete with the opening shots of The Seventh Seal in desolation. And yet he manages to never lose a sense of humor and fun about the movie.

Although not as mind-blowing as The Hourglass Sanatorium, I'd say that The Saragossa Manuscript is at least more exciting and watchable. It'll leave the viewer nostalgic for a time when literature was still the proper place of bigger-than-life adventure.
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Quixotic adventure Warning: Spoilers
In the midst of a bloody Napoleonic battle in Saragossa, Spain, two officers from opposing sides sit down in a heavily shelled Inn, put their differences aside and become engrossed in a large tome entitled "The Saragossa Manuscript". Its writings and lurid graphic images immediately put a spell on them, even more so when one of the officers realizes that the tale being told is that of his grandfather, Captain Alfonse Van Worden, himself an officer in the Walloon Guard. Van Worden's quest begins with his quest to reach the Sierra Morena, a mountainous pass would seem like the shortest route but he is warned by his servants that that area is haunted by demons and spirits. Ignoring their pleas they arrive at the Venta Quemada Inn, there he meets two Moorish princesses, Emina and Zibelda who try and convert him to Islam, claiming that he is the only choice to marry them as he is a distant relation. Despite Alphonse having an inkling they might be ghosts, he drinks from a skull goblet and wakes up under a gallows back where he started from. He then meets a holy man and a possessed man, gets captured by the Spanish Inquisition, gets rescued by the Zoto brothers, a group of bandits that were supposed to be dead, he also meets a Sheikh and drinks from a goblet and again awakens by the gallows, then meets and befriends a Caballist and the leader of a band of Gypsies etc etc..... Based on a novel by Jan Potocki, "The Manuscript found in Saragossa", Has's film has been for a long time a forgotten film. It won some awards when it was initially released, though it received a severely edited release in the US before it disappeared from public consciousness. Jerry Garcia is famed for his love of the film, he tried many times to get the rights to it, with the help of Martin Scorcese and Francis Ford Coppola, they finally succeeded, but failed to do so before Garcia's death. The Saragossa Manuscript is a Quixotic labyrinthine epic that really needs multiple viewings in order to gain any real sense of it, contained within are flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks, jumping back and forward in time, it will truly test the patience of the average film fan. Its mighty 3hr+ running time may not help matters much either. Writing this i cannot honestly claim to know what its all about, what its hidden meanings and metaphors pertain to, i think its one of those films that will get better with subsequent viewings as it slowly reveals its mysteries to the dedicated viewer. Visually its a real treat, its crisp black and white film makes the figures jump with life from the screen, DP Mieczyslaw Jahoda makes great use of the wonderful period setting, his fluid constantly moving camera adding a great depth to the overall feeling of authenticity. There are also many remarkable visual tricks that i still haven't worked out how they were done, one in particular towards the end where we see Alphonse in the Inn, he opens a door and there in a desert he sees himself with the two Moorish princesses, his double approaches him and they meet face to face in what it turns out is a mirror, astounding! The cast are for the most part excellent, but too numerous to single out. As a film it explores many avenues, comedy, tragedy, romance, religious zealotry, eroticism, forbidden love, incest, the list goes on, so its a credit to Has that any cohesion at all comes from the final product. I'm still reeling after my first viewing, can't for a repeat. The ending is also pretty cool and messes with your head just a bit about all that went before.
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An amazing, enigmatic film
Robert_Woodward4 May 2008
The Saragossa Manuscript is an enigmatic film, haunting and hilarious, dazzlingly complex, and spellbinding across almost three hours. It unfolds like a tapestry of 17th-century Spain, threaded together by the story of Captain Alphonse van Worden as he makes his way to Madrid. Dreams, flashbacks and storytelling are woven together by recurring images, locations and themes, creating a mystery for the viewer to untangle.

The noble ideal in Spanish society is portrayed as one of vast palatial residences, incessant duelling, grandiose gesturing and the courting of women. The flashback sequences featuring Captain van Worden's father, played by the remarkable Slawomir Lindner, are hugely entertaining. The complex web of storytelling in the second part of the film is similarly engaging, focusing around the lives of feuding merchants and duelling noblemen in the city.

Dark currents of supernatural powers and superstition run through this setting. Cannibal gypsies, devil-possessed men and ghostly characters haunt the countryside, and recurring images such as snakes, skulls and hanged men create an aura of foreboding. Captain van Worden's dream-like encounters with the mysterious Gomelez sisters (accompanied by unnerving sound effects and cackling noises) symbolise the disdain for Islam in medieval Christian Spain. Yet alongside this, the presence of Christianity, in the form of the Spanish Inquisition, is equally menacing; the capture and torture of Captain van Worden is as disturbing as the play of supernatural forces. God is not a comforting presence in this film.

The Saragossa Manuscript is divided into two distinctive parts. Dream-like sequences and flashbacks prevail in part one of the film, whereas part two centres around the telling of stories and stories-within-stories. The contrasts between the two parts reveal different perspectives within medieval Spain, with the haunted countryside and superstitions of part one giving way to more rational thinking in the largely urban setting of part two. The genius of this film is in the wealth of contradictions and fragmentary narratives; the viewer can piece together many details for themselves, but the film will always retain an air of mystery.
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Be prepared for a lengthy movie!
paul-szymkowicz14 January 2006
Although to many viewers, this film may seem tediously slow-moving at times, I found it visually and aurally fascinating. Each frame is a like a brilliant black and white photograph and I can still remember vividly (but not adequately describe in words) many of the recurring sound effects.

I love period pieces, with soldiers in uniforms, horses, and unusual, quirky and colorful characters. This film is in black and white and Polish is spoken throughout (with English subtitles.) I like to think of it as a morality tale, an ongoing battle of good and evil, where the protagonist Van Worden is being forced to make choices for which he must bear the consequences.

Zbigniew Cybulski, as the lost dragoon, seems to be a rather helpless, hapless and likable "everyman" as he tries to figure out what is happening to him (or to his character Von Worden.) I rarely get a chance to see it on the big screen but it has been released on DVD. If it plays at a movie theater near you, embrace the opportunity to share it with an "off-beat cinema"-loving friend or an off-beat friend who loves cinema.
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An excellent movie I found by accident one day...
abigler5 January 2003
I agree with the first review of this movie wholeheartedly. This is an excellent movie to be watched over and over. The mood, the pacing, the cinematography are all world class.

I stumbled upon this gem one day while browsing through the movies in the DVD section. What a find. It can be watched on a rainy night while sipping mulled wine or early in the morning with strong, black coffee and the rising sun. I've done both with bouts of insomnia and with good results.

Please take a leap and watch this amazing journey on film.
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Dull, rambling bore of a movie
delucadom23 September 2002
I could only stand two thirds of this three hour mess of a movie. Now, granted, the last hour may in fact be dazzling and may tie all the stories together and give them greater meaning. Yes, this may be true, though, I'll never know for sure, because, no matter how brilliant the last hour may be it couldn't possibly make up for the dull, rambling bore of the first two hours.

There is lots of promise in the characters, situations and some of the moviemaking but none of it is compelling enough or dramatic enough to sustain ones interest. The lead character, Alfonso Van Warden, wanders around the Spanish country side and stumbles into this immaculate hide away where he possibly meets two evil ghosts in the form of two very beautiful and sexually aggressive women. This quickly leads to Van Worden waking up in a field next to a couple of dead bodies. Then he meets this old, wise man who seems to know where Van Warden has been and warns him, then Van Worden gets captured by the Spanish Inquisition then rescued, then meets up with the old, wise man again, blah, blah, blah. Praising a bad film like this only serves to mislead and discourage movie buffs like myself, who are endlessly searching for those little-known, forgotten films that truly deserve one's attention and raves--films like "Seconds", "Scarecrow", "Gun Crazy", "I am Cuba" and the poetic and truly humanistic "Ballad of a Soldier." See those instead!
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one of a kind
aho16 June 2000
This is a mix of brilliant, energetic filmmaking and forced, cartoonish acting which yields a highly entertaining dose of unreality. The film is essentially a set of embedded stories, with a character in one story beginning another story, so on and so on, like an onion. The stories are connected in a variety of ways, as mysterious plot points in one story are explained in others, and as actors and locations in some stories reappear over and over in many of the stories (which certainly saved the filmmakers time and money, and which adds much confusion). What really matters in the film, though, is the art of storytelling, the art of creating a myth or legend. This is a movie ABOUT telling stories, about the supernatural, about faith, sin, and punishment, about comedy and tragedy, about all those tricks of storytelling. Watching this movie is like seeing a bedtime story come to life, like a Canterbury Tale or a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. The pace of the movie is quick, but it has a lot of material to cover, so pray for an intermission. The bottom line, though, is that this movie is unlike anything else, creating some truly unforgettable moments, and is definitely worth seeing.
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