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The Saragossa Manuscript (Wojciech Has) 1965
Set in Spain during the Napoleonic Wars, Wojciech Hasí The Saragossa Manuscript is surely one of the most convolutedly plotted films ever to reach the silver screen. At an epic three hours and two minutes long, the film has plenty of time to spin its story, and the story, actually I should say stories, that get spun are so intertwined and desultory that you keep waiting for the movie to run out of narrative thread, but it never does. This yarn keeps on unraveling, leaving the audience, like its main character in a protean state where they donít know whatís real and whatís fiction. Itís nearly impossible not to get overwhelmed at times by the scope of the film. The novel that the film is based on has reportedly made the transfer with an unusual amount of fidelity, and it shows. The intricate structure turns its stories of swashbuckling, religious guilt, mischievous demons, and harem girls into an examination, and satire, or narrative itself.
As the film proceeds, the hero, who is a character himself in a book that two soldiers in the opening scenes stop fighting to read, encounters person after person that wants to tell him a story. Many of the tales have further narrators within them, creating a nesting narrative that at its most complicated point goes seven levels deep. Random, subsidiary characters tell some stories, while the hero himself tells others. Through dream sequences, flashbacks, spoken narratives, and dťjŗ vu (signified by recurring images), the movie examines its mythical Spanish countryside through what feels like an unlimited number of storytellerís filters.
Despite the varying tones and narrators that populate The Saragossa Manuscript, itís tough to deny that the entire film feels as if itís being governed by a unified directorial style. Hasí 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 filmís sardonic tone, which never lets us forget that we shouldnít 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 doesnít 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.
* * * 1/2