There’s a conversation in Wojciech Jerzy Has’ hallucinatory picaresque epic, The Saragossa Manuscript (1965), in which a character utters the following words, “if I don’t understand but I can write it down, I approach poetry.” This could well be the filmmaker imparting wisdom through the mouth of his character, or perhaps comfort to the critic who will go slowly insane attempting to convey the plot. Insanity may or may not play a major part in proceedings depending on your point of view, but either way Has’ Matryoshka narrative envelopes you even as it confounds. It begins with a pair of soldiers happening upon a dusty tome in an abandoned building in Saragossa during the Napoleonic War.
The book seems to tell of one of the men’s own grandfathers, a captain of the Walloon Guard named Alphonse van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski) and his travails on his journey to Madrid. Headstrong and not a little puffed up he tries to navigate the barren countryside and on the way encounters various alarming and supernatural denizens of 17th century Spain. Based on a novel by Jan Potocki, what follows intertwines the occult, the erotic and the macabre whilst plunging into dizzying and labyrinthine storytelling. When resting at an inn, Alphonse is seduced by two beautiful, exotic princesses but awakens in the dirt beneath a nearby gallows complete with the swinging corpses of local bandits. The narrative keeps circling back to surreal motifs of hanged men, illicit sensuality, and corrupted spirituality.
The edges of reality and fantasy are blurred, with dreams and memories inextricable from one another. Throughout his travels, Alphonse comes into contact with characters keen to regale him with their stories which, in turn, involve myriad characters imparting their own. Has playfully takes the audience several convoluted tiers deep; stories beget stories, often exhibiting interconnected characters or events, and always presented with a crooked smile and a wink. The film is deliciously aware of its own construction, inviting the audience to laugh along when the latest character settles in to begin their own tale-within-a-tale-within-a-tale. At one stage, Alphonse has to interrupt someone in order to clarify precisely whose narrative is currently being recounted. In essence, however, whose narrative it is – and indeed following its twisting trajectory – is of little consequence.
It’s far easier to submit to its hilarious, unsettling and often baffling milieu, and be carried along by the sheer momentum. For a film that clocks in at over three hours it flies by, briskly leaping from substantial tales of forbidden lust or innocent love to an aside about a haughty merchant taking offence over an imagined slight or a wife playing ghoulish pranks on her husband to make room in their bed for her young lover. The Saragossa Manuscript manages to take swipes at all manner of people – sharper edges are reserved for the pious and the pompous – casting a satirical eye over everyone and managing to be raucously entertaining as it does so. You’ll end up as lost as Alphonse, but that’s half the fun.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson