Sunday, 9 August 2015

Blu-ray Review: The Saragossa Manuscript (Mr Bongo)

"Evil spirits take on so many forms. It's really confusing."

Wojciech Has' 1965 film was based on a book written by Jan Potocki, titled "The Manuscript Found In Saragossa". This labyrinthine book was written in 1815. Running for over 600 pages, it covers a 65 day period of very strange events, and was set during Napoleon's invasion of Spain. Has' film condenses the stories into 5 days, and runs for just over 3 hours.
The likes of David Lynch, Luis Bunuel, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola have all lavished praise on this film: indeed, Scorsese and Coppola took up the baton from The Greatful Dead's Jerry Garcia who sadly passed away before he could see it restored.
The film begins in Saragossa during the Napoleonic wars, when a retreating Captain seeks refuge in a bomb-damaged house. There, he encounters a rival soldier and together they begin to read a book written in Spanish. The hefty tome contains weird illustrations - two men hanging from gallows and two women in bed - and contains many stories. The central character is Alphonso Van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski from "Ashes And Diamonds") who is the grandfather of one of the men. Van Worden begins a journey to Madrid with two companions; a voyage of discovery destined to be interrupted by a series of bewildering events. After witnessing the sight of two hanging brothers, Van Worden arrives at an inn where he is invited to "a modest supper" by two sisters from Grenada. The women claim to be Moorish princesses and tell Van Worden he's their cousin, and is also last in the line of the Gonzalez clan.
Van Worden is asked to drink from a skull chalice and apparently falls asleep, waking up surrounded by skulls under the gallows.
"The Saragossa Manuscript" is a Chinese puzzle box, coming over as a Polish 'Arabian Nights', introducing new characters with stories to tell which reference previous names, faces and images.
It's very funny in places, with the humour fitting in beautifully. There's a long running gag about sword duels flaring up at the drop of a hat; an absolute nuisance of a hanger-on who always turns up at meal time and a priceless line that's extremely appropriate: "Do you think there should be a ladder under every window?"
There's also a group of weird and wonderful characters characters who seduce, inform and terrify Van Worden, including a hermit, a possessed man (who loses an eye in a stomach-churning incident), sexy succubi and a gypsy who plunges into a story that turns out to be four-layered.
There's more than a fair share of chills, too, with vanishing figures, ghostly tales and the preponderance of skulls reminding us the line between the living and the dead is wafer thin.

The 3 hour running time doesn't have an ounce of fat and actually flies by, such is the richness of its many tales. There are times when one wonders where the reality ends and fantasy begins, and that is the central theme of this compelling film. Of course, the myriad twists and turns mean there's an awful lot to take in on a single viewing, so repeat screenings are necessary in order to fully appreciate the depth of this work.
I did wonder, on a few occasions, whether additional scenes were shot but not included in the final cut: the sight of Van Worden appearing at a window with head injuries and no indication of how he received them is one such instance. We'll probably never know, but it certainly adds to the film's air of mystery.

Mr Bongo's Blu-ray presentation - it was previously available on DVD - marked my first viewing of this film, and most certainly not my last. Mreczyslaw Jahoda's stunning camerawork reveals rich monochrome imagery: the streets bathed in sunlight, and reverting to a shadowy domain when darkness falls; the mountains of Sierra Morena sometimes resembling human (?) faces carved in stone; a four poster bed in a flooded cave where tricks of the light make one's imagination run riot... these challenging, changing images all look splendid in a restoration that is crisp and detailed in high definition.
The score by Krzysztof Penderecki comes over beautifully via the mono soundtrack. Many of you will have heard excerpts from Penderecki's work via "The Shining", "The Exorcist" and "Inland Empire", and his style suits this film so very well.

"The Saragossaa Manuscript" will be available to purchase in the UK on 7th September. It's an all-region disc with English subtitles.
Those of you who enjoy challenging cinema with no easy answers are directed to indulge in its many delights.

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