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Elizabeth Lee Miller,
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In the Napoleonic wars, an officer finds an old book that relates his grandfather's story, Alfons van Worden, captain in the Walloon guard. A man of honor and courage, he seeks the shortest route through the Sierra Morena. At an inn, the Venta Quemada, he sups with two Islamic princesses. They call him their cousin and seduce him; he wakes beside corpses under a gallows. He meets a hermit priest and a goatherd; each tells his story; he wakes again by the gallows. He's rescued from the Inquisition, meets a cabalist and hears more stories within stories, usually of love. He returns to Venta Quemada, the women await with astonishing news. Written by
Don Pedro Velasquez:
We are like blind men lost in the streets of a big city. The streets lead to a goal, but we often return to the same places to get to where we want to be. I can see a few little streets here which, as it is now, are going nowhere. New combinations have to be arranged, then the whole will be clear, because one man cannot invent something that another cannot solve.
Alfonse Van Worden:
I no longer follow.
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"The Saragossa Manuscript" is a brilliant work, by turns (or simultaneously) mysteriously spooky and wildly funny. Its unusually long running time does not get tiring because it is so full of variety and unfailing inventiveness. The stories of a crowd of distinctive characters intermesh into a unity that is not obvious at first, but slowly grows clearer -- one of the ideas that can be gathered from the movie is precisely that of the interdependence of people who would seem to have little in common, whether Christian, Jew or Moslem. It's a profoundly humanistic idea.
This theme is the contribution of the novelist Jan Potocki, a Pole living in France when he wrote "The Manuscript Found in Saragossa" at the beginning of the 19th century. One of the main strengths of the movie is also mainly Potocki's, the creation of a Spain of dreams, full of romance, mystery, lively humor, and eroticism (the novel found difficulty in being published originally, and the author was criticised for his libertinism). As vividly brought to the screen by Wojcech Has, this Spain is a place that a viewer will want to return to repeatedly.
Has, however, strongly emphasized the phantasmagorical elements in the novel. The atmosphere that he creates, and the visual style that supports it, are another major asset of the movie. The images of the haunted Sierra Morena are consistently touched with strangeness but not overburdened. I think especially of one shot where the tumbled white rocks look just like bleached bones -- an effect that wouldn't have worked so well if the movie had been in color. In keeping with this shift of emphasis, the adaptation contributes a new ending to the story, which is entirely appropriate; it comes from a distinctly twentieth-century sensibility.
Add to this a uniformly skillful cast (special recognition goes to Slawomir Lindner as the elder Van Worden) and you have a movie that I can't recommend strongly enough.
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