We are like blind men lost in the streets of a big city.
Dir. Wojciech Has
Storytelling itself is inherently beautiful even if the story being told has no end. My younger self, admittedly only five or so years ago but a vast jump to now, didn’t understand this and only got a lot from films which explained everything about themselves. With exceptions that would eventually chop away at this mentality, most films that rejected or subverted narrative fully were pretentious and dull in my eyes. I found The Saragossa Manuscript to be boring, and as the dinglebat I was, got rid of the DVD version I viewed. Like the ghosts that haunt Alfonse Van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski), an officer for the Walloon guard who travels to Spain and finds himself unable to escape from a continuing loop, all the films (so far) I once dismissed are creeping out the grave I put them in as some of the films I praised the most turn rotten and feel pedestrian and lacking. The discarded films prove to be more potent now I realised the virtues of dreaming, plotting structure by itself and throwing yourself into something without any idea what is exactly going on. Films like American Beauty (1999) are vacuous and insignificant while The Saragossa Manuscript, seen again finally after all these years, runs rings around it in content and presentation.
The film is a celebration of storytelling, starting off with a framing beginning of the protagonist’s future ancestor, and the members of the opposing army he’s fighting about to capture him, becoming transfixed with the titular manuscript, a beautiful, giant tone (presumed to be) written by Van Worden and with evocative illustrations. It goes into the tale of Van Worden, unable to leave an inn and the area around it, stuck in a labyrinth that circles back onto its beginning point, whether it is two Tunisian princesses who want to marry him or the Inquisition after his hide who drag him back to the starting point. He becomes a minor figure in his own tale as everyone else speaks of their lives. The film becomes a story-within-a story-within-a story as it juggles these characters’ tales of cuckooed husbands, demonic possession, pranksterish attempts to marry two people and duelling injuries with figures of the film interweaving and entering others’ stories. The film even becomes a story-within-a story-within-a story-within-a story-within a story, topping the one moment joke of Detention (2011), a film I covered on this blog, by making this an extended, multi-layered tales within tales narrative that humorously admits to the absurdity of this structure at one point. Like dreams-within-dreams-within-dreams, pockets open up in the film’s existence which develops pockets of their own.
The film is elaborate in tone, with clear nods to Surrealist art but also with a dense visual look of extensive sets and moving camera shots. From a source material that, from what I’ve looked into, is even more dense and full of more pockets in its obsession with tangents – a book I’m adding to my To-Read list at the top now – this layered and vast film manages to breeze past despite being three hours long, but the sense of joy to it all is fully felt and intoxicating. Despite its obsession with death – piles of skulls, hanged men, fencing duel deaths, rotting flesh and demons – it’s on the side of the macabre that is playful. The score by Krzysztof Penderecki, electronic noises and layered demonic yabberings over the Napoleonic Era setting, is anachronistic but adds to the unearthly nature of what’s onscreen. As the film progresses, it’s clear Van Worden will never reach his destination, permanently in this loop that, unless he is only dreaming it, will continue timelessly. Far from a bleak end, it suggests the sense of the Ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tale and keeps existing, that reality has always repeated itself, and in a place of these stories-within-stories, of gypsies, princesses, pranksters and merchants, Van Worden at least is somewhere which is vivid in its life and populous despite the insanity that he may end up in. The story could have gone for six hours, spiralling into further tangents and areas, and felt succinct with its long length making sense to the material. Van Worden is a figure in the middle of a storyteller going through their tale, the onlooker as it continues as long as the narrator can muster it. This richness vastly outmatches other films I once praised for their lack of this depth, like films like it I unfair have given premature burials of. Such a controlled stream-of-consciousness, The Saragossa Manuscript is a welcomed self discovery for me. If my reviews of films like this dangerous veer towards being identical in their praises of the work, it is only because they end up intertwining together in one form showing how movies can be both entertainment but open up one’s perception of their creation and form. If there’s a virtue to my dismissive attitude I once had, it means that now I’m rewatching these films with a new perception it feels like each one is a first time viewing with new eyes. The revenge of The Saragossa Manuscript on me for wanting to fall asleep in the middle of it once was justified but was good for me too.