Quest Status: 715 / 1000
TSPDT Rank #979
Based on legendary Polish literary figure Jan Potocki's 1815 magnum opus, Wojciech Has' The Saragossa Manuscript is a labyrinthine epic filled with tantalizing mystery, as well as equal doses of humor and eroticism. Long out of print in the US, the film has nevertheless attained renown thanks to the devoted fandom of celebrity appreciators as diverse as Jerry Garcia, Luis Bunuel, David Lynch and Martin Scorsese. Its unconventional structure is rightfully famous - the film contains layer upon layer of overlapping stories, as various narrators tell a variety of stories about demonic possession, mischievous noblemen, dueling swashbucklers and amorous escapades. These stories often reflect upon each other, with connections to other characters being revealed gradually as each successive story gives way to another, and another... eventually returning back to the starting point in an perpetual series of narrative loops.
So what is it all about? Good question. The film begins in the Spanish town of Saragossa during the Napoleonic Wars, where soldiers from both sides become captivated by an old book discovered in an abandoned inn. Although this would-be frame story is never revisited, everything that follows stems from this initial discovery. The whimsical idea of soldiers abandoning their battle in order to read about a Spanish nobleman's adventures sets a tone of dreamlike fantasy, and when the action shifts to a barren mountain pass long ago, with one of the soldiers appearing to be transformed into the book's narrator, Spanish nobleman Alfonso Van Worden (both portrayed by Polish cinema icon Zbigniew Cybulski), it feels as if we've suddenly leaped into another world. As it turns out, this feeling will be repeated again and again throughout the film, until the film's world begins to feel transient and timeless - an endless chain of stories with no constant "reality" to keep us grounded.
The initial feeling of whimsy is soon replaced by one of mystery and dread, as Alfonso stumbles upon a deserted inn said to be inhabited by ghosts and "evil spirits." Here, he is invited to dinner by two seductive Tunisian princesses, who have supposedly never seen a man before and have therefore turned to each other to satisfy their natural desire for love. It also turns out that Alfonso is a distant relative of the sisters' dying royal lineage, obliging him to marry both of them simultaneously in order to produce an heir. Before Alfonso can recover from his mystified infatuation, he is also informed that he must convert to Islam, drink an unknown substance from a skull chalice, and agree to see the sisters "only in his dreams" in order to seal the deal. Before he knows it, Alfonso wakes up beneath the corpses of two bandits hanging outside the inn, with the sisters nowhere in sight. And this is only the beginning of his adventures.
The film is separated into two parts: the first of which follows Alfonso as his attempts to reach his destination on the other side of the mountains are continually foiled by a succession of strange figures, including (but not limited to) an eccentric hermit, a cryptic Cabalist, and the Spanish Inquisition. The second part of the film, meanwhile, takes us down yet another rabbit hole as the leader of a traveling band of gypsies regales Alfonso and his companions with a series of bawdy tales featuring a large ensemble cast of characters whose fates intersect and eventually lead us back to Alfonso. As for our hero, he is eventually reunited with his wives, only to wake up to another, even more ambiguous fate. The ending turns everything that has happened over the course of the film on its head, but this is fitting for a film which toys endlessly with narrative structure until the stories themselves begin to seem like the reflections from so many grains of sand in the vast desert of imagination.