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The Saragossa Manuscript by Wojciech Jerzy Has (DVD)

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Theatrical Release: 1964 / Suitable for 15 years and over / Director: Wojciech Jerzy Has / Actors: Zbigniew Cybulski, Kazimierz Opalinski, Iga Cembrzynska-Kondratiuk, Joanna Jedryka, Aleksander Fogiel ... / DVD released 2008-03-26 at Mr Bongo Films / Features of the DVD: Anamorphic, PAL, Widescreen

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      20.01.2009 19:36
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      A film much acclaimed by Scorsese and Coppola

      During the Boer War, two soldiers from opposing sides find a manuscript full of beautiful drawings, all telling wonderful fairy tales. These tales are told from the point of view of Captain Van Worden, who wonders around the Spanish countryside, bumping into a whole range of characters, including a Cabbalist, a madman, two Moorish princesses, a sheikh, various brigands, peasants, and soldiers. All have a tale to tell, and before long, we find ourselves immersed in several stories within stories, all told first, second and third hand to Van Worden. In the meantime, Van Worden is trying to track down his Moorish princesses, both of whom have professed their love for him; but each time he finds them, he ends up drinking a potion and waking up head first in a pile of skeletons. What is going on? And will he ever live happily ever after with his princesses?

      The Saragossa Manuscript is a film that I had heard of, but didn't really know much about. It turns out to be a film made in the 1960s by Polish director Wojciech Has, based on a book called The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, written by Polish author Jan Potocki in the early nineteenth century. What I didn't expect is that it is actually set in Spain, involving a wealth of Spanish and Moorish characters, and that it is basically a collection of fairy tales, all little stories within themselves, but also eventually linking back to Van Worden and what has happened to him. At around three hours in length, it is not for the faint-hearted, but because it is split into stories, it is actually much easier to get through than I expected.

      Although the film was made in the 1960s, it is in black and white and, of course, in Polish, with subtitles, which may instantly put some people off. Personally, I think it works best in black and white - the set is obviously a budget one and I think the lack of colour clarity meant that it looked better than it otherwise would have done. The subtitles are good - there are times when words are split - for example, he a sked, rather than he asked. However, they were clear enough for me and I certainly didn't struggle to understand what was being said. I did have to stop the DVD a couple of times for a rest, but that was more to do with the length rather than any communication problems.

      There are many actors involved in the film, most of whom only appearing fleetingly, which makes it difficult to pinpoint any particular actor or character as being impressive or terrible. Van Worden, played by Zbigniew Cybulski, is the character who appears the most frequently, but by the time he has snogged the Moorish princesses, drank the potion and woken up in a pile of bones, there is not much time left for him to actually act. He is perfectly competent in the role, I just didn't think he was anything special. The only other actor that really stood out for me is Franciszek Pieczka, who plays the madman - he gives a gloriously over-stated performance as a madman, roaring nonsense and swaying as he walks, but then when asked to tell his story, suddenly reverts to a completely normal person. The film is partly a comedy, so this was probably done deliberately; otherwise, he is a very bad actor!!

      One of the reasons that the time passes very quickly is that it is really very funny at times. It is described as a comedy, but I still didn't expect it to provide as many laughs as it did. This is mainly through the highly exaggerated performances, but also has a lot to do with the stories, which are basically nonsense, involving strange people doing strange things. Van Worden's Moorish princesses, for example, have promised their family to stay away from any man, unless he belongs to the family that Van Worden happens to come from. They have also promised that they will both marry the same man, because in their isolation from men, they have come to love each other very dearly...if you get my drift. Some of the happenings are so bizarre that, was the translation not written down for us to see clearly, I would have presumed I had misheard.

      To be honest, I think that if the film was one long story, I would have completely lost the plot - thankfully, the shortness of the tales enabled me to keep a slight grasp on what was going on. And although it doesn't seem like it is going to have a point, it does eventually have one, albeit a rather silly one. I suppose the stories are a mixture of the author's imagination, coupled with some myths - if someone told me that he was on drugs at the time of writing, I wouldn't be completely surprised!

      The music is, in keeping with the film, completely mad. It is apparently written by a Polish composer, Krzysztof Penderecki, who chose to write a series of experimental tracks for the film. Generally I thought it fitted in very well with what we were seeing on screen, but at times it was so dischordant that it actually made me jump. A friend I was watching it with, who loves his experimental music, didn't like it because he felt it was too modern, whereas the story was obviously taking place some hundred years before. With the subtitles though, it is easy to switch off the sound if you don't like the music, so I don't think a dislike of it is that big a deal.

      There is not much in the way of special features on the disc, but there is a collection of stills of drawings from the original story for anyone who is really interested. Personally, I think they are worth a brief glance, but they aren't worth getting excited about, and didn't tell me as much about the book as I would have liked to have known.

      This is, actually, a very entertaining film. As it has been highly acclaimed by people such as Jerry Garcia, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, I had expected it to be much more high-brow and serious than it was, and I really laughed out loud several times because it is all so unexpected. If you like a point to your films, then this probably isn't for you. However, it you want some escapism and the chance to see the world through someone else's madness, you'll probably enjoy it as much as I did. Just don't go to a cinema to watch it - you will need several toilet and drink breaks to get through it all! Recommended.

      The DVD is available from Amazon for £8.98.

      Classification: 15

      Running time: 182 minutes

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