Starring: Zbigniew Cybulski, Iga Cembrynska
Director: Wojciech Has
Think Baron Munchausen meets Tristram Shandy and you’ll have some idea what’s in store in this crazily inspired three-hour compendium of ghost stories and shaggy dog tales, based on a classic of Polish literature by Jan Potocki. There are framing devices within framing devices, but the film largely centres around the attempts of Alfonse van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski), a dandyish, easily distracted officer, to cross a mountain range that has a reputation for being haunted. In dizzying succession, he finds himself harassed by the spirits of two hanged men, waylaid by a pair of seductive Moorish princesses in a mysterious cavern and thrown off course by encounters with bandits, philosophers and the Spanish Inquisition. Along the way there are tales within tales and learned dialogue … at one point it even becomes like a Thomas Love Peacock novel of ideas as various notions of the infinite are discussed in a mixed company of gypsies and nobles in a castle decorated with kabbalistic symbols.
Throughout the first half in particular what binds everything together is a keen sense of the temptations of the flesh and the devil and the absurd weakness of the human will when cofronted by them. The imagery is extraordinary – the bleakness of the mountains, the ox skeleton erected by the side of the road as a warning to travellers, the withered, semi-mummified bodies of the hanged men. The mixture of humour and hallucination, of Breugelesque bustle and sudden, stabbing Bava-like chills, is sustained by director Wojciech Has with unflagging energy and brilliance, and he’s helped along by sumptuously baroque set design, stunning b/w ‘Scope cinematography and a cast who find the perfect balance between theatricality and earthiness. (With the exception of Cybulksi himself. Often referred to as the James Dean of Polish cinema, he seems much less at ease here in a costume setting than he does in his more famous role as the reluctant assassin in Ashes and Diamonds.) The second half of the movie turns into more of a lightweight, frothy La Ronde-style affair, but this is very enjoyable too in its own way and again features some superb comic performances.
True, The Saragossa Manuscript is arguably more impressive in the parts than the whole, and it’s also very much of its time in its depiction of women – Has introduces a series of remarkably attractive actresses in what promise to be fascinating roles, only for them to be disappointingly sidelined. But it’s unique, bursting with energy, dazzling with light and shadow, and driven by an intelligence, verve and ambition that leave most movies looking minuscule by comparison. 10/10
This is the best transfer of a black-and-white movie we’ve seen since Arrow’s 4K release of Salvatore Giuliano, pin-sharp with an almost 3D quality in some of the deep focus compositions. Details such as the fine lacework of Alfonse’s cuffs and the fluffy taffeta wedding dress in the wedding sequence come up with amazing clarity. In the scene where Alfonse first encounters the princesses, there’s a luscious contrast between the silky blad of Emina’s dress and her silvery flesh tones. And there’s a lovely, quivering, sun-dappled quality to the moment when Inez comes walking along the vine-smothered colonnade … but you’ll have your own favourites in a transfer that’s full of beautiful moments. 10/10