Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Wojciech Has | Rękopis znaleziony w Saragossie (The Saragossa Manuscript)

dividing infinity
by Douglas Messerli
Tadeusz Kwiatkowski (screenplay, based on the novel by Jan Potocki), Wojciech Has (director) Rękopis znaleziony w Saragossie (The Saragossa Manuscript) / 1965, restored edition, 2001

Potocki’s grand Borgesian-like book from 1815 tells stories within stories within stories, creating a kind of puzzle book of interlocking and often contradictory tales centering on a Spanish officer’s ancestor. The audacity of Has’ adaptation of that fiction is obvious from its earliest scenes, as an officer stumbles into Saragossa, gunshots and charges of dynamite surrounding him. Seeking refuge in a small inn he discovers a fascinating book with drawings. So entranced with the book is he that when enemy soldiers come to arrest him, he refuses to look up, soon after encouraging the Spanish enemy to translate the work for him.

      The Spaniard’s ancestor, Alphonse Von Worden, is played by one of the most notable of Polish actors, Zbigniew Cybulski, who only a few years earlier, in 1958, had starred in Andrej Wajda’s great film, Ashes and Diamonds—after which he was described as the Polish James Dean. Although still somewhat handsome, the star of Has’ film has lost he youthful looks and is slightly overweight. His character, Alphonse, moreover, is a fool, a stubbornly clumsy captain of the Walloon Guards, who with two unwilling servants is seeking the shortest route through the Sierra Morena Mountains on his way to Madrid.

     The two men warn him against the route since it lies in haunted territory, but Alphonse, claiming he does believe in ghosts, ventures forth, losing one of his retinue, his donkey, and provisions, and is forced to stop for the night at a inn, Venta Quernada, whose owners, terrified of the dead who revisit the town each night, abandon it at sunset. Although the inn appears to be empty, Alphonse soon encounters a bare-breasted Tunisian woman who leads him through several doors to a secret room wherein two Moorish princesses, Emina (Iga Cembrzyńska) and Zibelda (Joanna Jędryka) are dining. Both encourage him to make love, explaining that they are his cousins, the last of his mother’s line, and that he must marry both of them in order to provide heirs. They are, however, Islamic, he a Catholic, and they encourage him to convert, which he refuses. Nonetheless, they seduce him, telling him that since he will not convert that he can only visit them in his dreams, and serve him a potion from a skull goblet to drink.

Suddenly he wakes to discover himself back in the countryside from which he has escaped, lying next to piles of skulls and two gallows, from which, we later learn, the Zoto brothers have been hung. Voyaging forward he encounters a hermit priest whose major activity seems to be his attempt to cure a possessed man, who eyes has been gouged out and who cries from the torments of his past. After giving Von Worden goat’s milk to drink—nearly all the film’s dozens of episodes involve food or drink—the priest insists that his charge tell his own life story, which in some respects parallels Von Worden’s meeting with the two princesses. In the possessed man’s tale, a younger woman marries his father while he longs to marry—but is forbidden by the father—his mother’s sister. Plotting so that her son-in-law might make love to her sister, the mother looks on as the sibling and son in bed.

      After a frightening night of noises in the chapel, the young fool-hardly hero ventures forward once again, only this time to be captured by members of the Spanish Inquisition, who begin to torture him before he is rescued by the two Tunisian princesses and the Zoto brothers, who have somehow been resurrected. In their rooms, once more, the two beauties again seduce Alfonse, who in lovemaking is interrupted by the arrival of their father Sheikh Gomelez, who gives Alfonse a choice of death or drinking from the skull goblet.

       Alfonse awakens once more at the gallows, this time encountering a cabalist who speaks in the abstract concepts of numbers and their linguistic significance. They soon meet up with a rationalist, a mathematician, who a short while before had been almost arrested by the Spanish Inquisition, mistaking him for Alphonse. Not knowing which direction to take—a situation that occurs throughout Alphonse’s travels—the cabalist suggests they take refuge in his nearby castle.

        The mathematician best summarizes, perhaps, the first part of this incredible movie: “The human mind is willing to accept anything, if it is used knowingly.”  

        At the castle, Part II, we discover a secret plot being undertaken by the cabalist and his sister, Donna Rebecca Uzeda. In the castle library, Alphonse uncovers the same book which has begun his series of misadventures, but the book is quickly removed from his sight, the plotters afraid that he might read ahead of where his life has so far reached. When a group of gypsies arrives, their leader begins a series of new stories, each nested in the other, all involving, vaguely, love, deceit and honor. As Donna Rebecca summarizes about the tales—in some of which appear characters we have encountered previously, others of which containing figures that will be important in later stories: “All these adventures begin simply. The listener thinks it’ll soon be over, but one story creates another, and then another.” To which the mathematician answers: “Something like quotients which can be divided infinitely.”

        Indeed, his words might sum up the structure of both Potocki’s masterpiece and Has’ film. The adventures that occur to and told to our bumbling hero, Van Worden, do divide infinitely, even though, obviously, the film could not contain as many variations as did the novel. Even when Alfonse finally returns to Venta Quemada to meet one last time with the princesses, now both pregnant with child, and is told by the Sheikh that all has been a series of fictions created to test the captain’s courage, we immediately perceive the tale-telling to be endless. Like One Thousand and One Nights, the stories have the potential to go on forever, each story creating another from within itself, and another and another. The Sheikh gives Alphonse the book with which the film began, encouraging this comic adventurer—a kind of unperceiving Don Quixote—to complete his own tale.

Waking once more under the gallows, Alphonse discovers his original servants to be still with him, as if all the previous adventures had been a dream only. At a small inn in Saragossa, we observe him writing in the large book the tales, presumably, we have just encountered— until he is told two princesses are awaiting him. Tossing the book aside, he exits, the book landing on the table precisely in the same spot where his descendant’s enemy had first discovered it.

       While many have described Has’ film as “surrealist,” and Buñuel, himself, expressed admiration for the work, I would characterize it as having more in common with Sergei Paradjanov’s staged tableaux vivants, like the illuminated manuscript at the center of this work. And, although Has’ film was not without success in Eastern Europe, winning the Golden Wolf award in the 1965 Bucharest Film Festival, its greatness was obscured, in part, because it did not fit into the realist concerns of the Polish Film School with which Has was first connected, while the moral angst of later films by Wadja and other Polish directors did not resonate with the more theatrical and static images represented in this movie—just as Russian realism found no sympathy for the cinema of Paradjanov and Tarkovsky. Fortunately, due to the labors of musician Jerry Garcia, and filmmakers Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, we can now watch a restored version of this masterpiece.
Los Angeles, November 13, 2012



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