A Polish Thousand and one Nights — The Saragossa Manuscript
The Saragossa Manuscript is a 1965 Polish film directed by Wojciech Has, based on the 1815 novel The Manuscript Found in Saragossa by Jan Potocki.
In 2001 prominent US film directors Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola dug up the original Polish cut and redid the subtitling for a clean 182 minute version of this spicy underground classic.
For decades there were only two copies of the film with English subtitles circulating with 35 or 50 minutes missing from the original Polish version. SF Bay area fans first got a glimpse of the film at the Gilman Street complex and at a Richmond District Arts theater back in the late 70’s followed by a packed one night showing at the UC Theater in the 80’s. These were the days when the bay area had one of the premiere international theater circuits that slowly disappeared as mini-theaters died out due to ever higher distribution costs, the mega-American block buster mentality and the era of VHS rentals.
Jan Potocki was born into wealthy autocratic Polish family dynasty who became a world traveler, publicist, and military officer who is re-veered in Poland for his exploits including the first to ride a hot air balloon. He wrote the Manuscripts in the last years of his life as he fell into mental depression and delusions — taking his own life with a silver bullet in fear that he was turning into a werewolf. An early review accompanying the film’s showing said that he commenced the work to cheer up his dying wife — with its style of stories built upon more stories in a vein similar to the Arabian 1001 nights. The Wikipedia coverage of the book and Potocki’s life is a must read for more details — with interest resulting in new versions of the book being released as recently as 2009.
The manuscript, as put onto celluloid by Wojciech Has in 1965, takes a highly crafted Soviet era view of the corrupt Castilian, post Moorish Spain that mixes drugs, scoundrels, inquisition, secret societies and the erotic adventures of Alphonse van Worden on his way through the Sierra Morena mountains to Madrid where he has been offered a officer’s post.
During the five day journey we are treated to a feast of stories and characters that have come into this pathetic young man’s (Alphonse) trip. The real desert in this feast is not to be given away here. Yet this is one tasty meal, that must be savored more than once, as the audience, at first bewildered as the complex story unveils itself in reverse order in such a manner that will leave the viewer needing additional viewing sessions to unravel what they have just witnessed. In other words this movie takes some serious mental exertion to wade through — a good portion of this has to do with the language barrier, but the content and social commentary are so tasty that this multi-course mental feast is definitely worth repeating.
I went back the 2nd time with a notes to verify if what I thought I’d saw was indeed what I thought I’d seen the previous night!
The entire movie is a series of conversations or nested stories that drop down into new stories some of which are intentionally fabricated as they ensnare Alphonse in a growing mental trap with a secret surprise agenda. At the movie’s pinnacle, we are treated to the master story telling of a gypsy king who serves up the main course: the courtship that takes place at a brothel in Madrid of an upper class son of a businessman from Cadiz that draws in three very typical Spaniards and their corrupt lifestyles.
What does this tale have to do with Alphonse? Now that is the question isn’t it!
And of course, these gypsy tales on the fourth day of Alphonse’s adventure take place following his capture and torture by the catholic inquisition that just happen to be seeking heretics at that moment high up in the Sierra’s — all but setting him up for the cathartic traps that have magically sprung up around him. By this time our poor Alphonse has been drugged and terrified to the point of having a serious case of PTSD when his rescuers take the bag off of his head!
But of course, his newly acquired family has no intention of letting him die a lonely death near a gruesome gallows. And so Alphonse has his happy ending… or is it?
What the hell just happened, and who was the victim? Us or Alphonse. If its us the audience, then we better do more than just walk away from the movie confused and ready to forget what we just witnessed. Maybe its better project Alphonse as the victim, then we might look more closely — meaning a couple more trips back to the dark room to sort out what happened. But in our modern world how dare they force you to watch a 3 hour movie several times to sort out what really happened! Watch out if you’re the curious type!
Here’s a hint. Watch out for magic Elixirs and hot harem babes. Can you figure out who is lying and why? What really ensnared me in this soup back in the late 1970’s was that the Bay Area was going through a number of very intense cultural changes. The first being the rise and fall of cults, the new age movement and the death of the counter culture all converging on the community that was starting to decline as the backlash of conservative America emerged. All around San Francisco were the very same signs of human collapse as seen back during the 18th century as royalist (Castilian) Spain slid into long term decline.
Remember, Potocki the author killed himself with a silver bullet thinking he was turning into a werewolf just as he was completing the manuscript. In addition, the movie was going to need the blessing of Soviet thought police or it would never see the light of day. What better moral moment could there be than a tale of decadence followed by insanity as the western individualist’s cultural model implodes under its own exploitative mental freedoms.
1 The Saragossa Manuscript is Found at small village Inn by two officers
2 Alphonse van Worden wakes up on the road to Madrid
3 Alphonse travels to the Venta Quemada Inn
4 Alphonse meets Emina and Zibelda
5 Emina and Zibelda’s Story
6 Alphonse wakes up under the gallows
7 Alphonse meets the Hermit and Pasheko
8 Alphonse’s father’s story
9 Alphonse’s story
10 Pascheko’s story
11 A night in the chapel
12 Alphonse is captured by the Inquisition
13 Alphonse is resqued
14 Alphonse returns to the Venta Quemada with Emina and Zibelda
15 Alphonse wakes up under the gallows
& meets the cabalist who return to Venta Quemada
16 Alphonse and the cablaist meet Don Pedro
& ride to the cabalist’s castle
17 Arrival at the castle
18 Alphonse finds the manuscript in the castle
19 The gypsy chief Senor Avadoro begins his story
20 Captain Toledo’s story
21 Avadoro’s story is interrupted
22 Avadoro continues with his story
23 Lopez Suarez’s story
24 Suarez’s father story
25 Back to Lopez Suarez’s story:
He meets Don Roque Busqueros
26 Don Roque’s story: He meets Frasquita Salero
27 Fasquita’s story
28 Back to Lopez Suarez’s story
29 back to Don Roque’s story
30 back to Lopez Suarez’s story — he enters Toledo’s story
31 back to Avadoro’s story: he leaves to find Toledo
32 Avadoro’s story is interupted again
comments from the audience
33 Avadoro continues with his story: He meets Don Roque
34 Don Roque meets Lopez Suarez’s father and solves two problems
35 Don Roque and Toledo Meet
36 Don Roque continues the story of Frasquita
37 The three men realize who Frasquita is
38 Avadoro and Don Roque see Alphonse’s father dueling
39 Avadoro’s story ends
40 Alphonse leaves the castle and rides to Venta Quemada
41 Alphonse once again meets Emina and Zibelda
and is given the manuscript
42 Alphonse wakes up under the gallows
43 Alphonse leaves the manuscript in Saragossa