B&W, 1965, 183 mins. 27 secs.
Directed by Wojciech Has
Starring Zbigniew Cybulski, Iga Cembrzyńska, Joanna Jędryka
Yellow Veil Pictures (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Mr. Bongo (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK R0 HD/PAL), Zebra - Kino RP (Blu-ray) (Poland R0 HD), Image Entertainment (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (2.39:1) (16:9)
Arguably the greatest occult epic in cinema, this intricate and genre-bending tapestry from the great Wojciech Has is a mesmerizing puzzle box of a film that rewards multiple viewings. Somewhat successful in its native country upon release, the film's three-hour running time (and some mild casual nudity) became an issue abroad where it was given spotty distribution in a variety of severely edited versions over the years. Famously, Jerry Garcia was an early devotee and pushed for its restoration, something that came to pass after his death with the involvement of Martin Scorsese and a limited repertory release in the U.S. in 2001 thanks to the restoration of Has' persona print (the only complete one in existence). Since then the film has amassed a deserve cult following, with its mixture of horror, surrealism, wry humor, and outrageous mind games anticipating the wave of midnight movies to come in following decades.
In the arid Spanish landscape of Saragossa in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars, two opposing officers cross paths at a deserted inn where they come across a mysterious book one of them is able to translate. The narrative more or less follows the uncanny experiences of soldier Alfonse Van Worden (Ashes and Diamonds' Cybulski) who takes a shortcut through the surrounding mountain and comes across a pair of enigmatic princesses who invite him to dine for the evening and reveal they are his cousins. After the evening takes a dark turn, he finds himself spiraling through a bizarre cast of characters and interlocking tales involving the Spanish Inquisition, cabalism, royalty, murder, and repeated returns to a sinister execution site.
Jammed with unforgettable imagery and impossible to synopsize in any sort of coherent fashion after the first hour or so, The Saragossa Manuscript was an understandable favorite of Luis Buñuel in addition to its other famous fans; it's easy to see how this had a likely impact on the Spanish director's 1970s work with its focus on surrealistic vignettes rather than a singular storyline. This one does ultimately come full circle and deliver a payoff though, with a haunting ending that anticipates the divisive resolution of The Ninth Gate decades later.
Multiple home video releases of this title have appeared over the years including a DVD from Image Entertainment in 2002, fully letterboxed and subtitled, followed by a pair of Polish Blu-ray releases. The first from Zebra - Kino RP featured a Polish DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix (which sounds pretty artificial and inferior to the original mono) with optional Polish or English subtitles and an audiodescription track, plus a 1-minute restoration trailer, a 1m58s restoration demo, a superfluous gallery of frame grabs, a restoration gallery, and a Kino RP promo reel. The U.K. also saw DVD and Blu-ray releases from Mr. Bongo in 2008 and 2015 respectively, with no extras and from the same restoration.
In 2023, Yellow Veil debuted the film on U.S. Blu-ray hot on the heels of their release of Has' The Hourglass Sanatorium. This edition features a new video intro by Annette Insdorf (7m3s) about her introduction to the film and its enduring cult status, as well as background on the many pursuits of author Jan Potocki during the course of his life. She also provides a separate 10m4s appraisal of the film about the themes and stylistic choices that became more apparent on repeated viewings including subtle threads between the various characters. Finally an interview with critic Sebastian Smolinski (23m38s) covers the film's unique status in Has' filmography and its special place in world cinema, as well as the director's approach to literary adaptation and the elements of Polish and World War II history found in his work. The film itself looks great and comes from the identical restoration preserving the essential scope framing, which comes with some baked-in "CinemaScope mumps" (horizontal distortion) due to the lenses used during production. An intermission break has always been present in the full cut, and this is the only Blu-ray that actually splits the film into two separate files running 102m41s and 80m47s. The Polish DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono track is also in fine condition and features optional yellow English subtitles. The disc comes with a booklet featuring two essays, Insdorf's "The Saragossa Manuscript: Incertitude and Internal Rhymes" (about the film's significance to Polish audiences, its use of Jewish tropes, and the hidden possible meanings of its serpentine structure) and Atnon Bitel's "Lost in History" (covering ties to other anthology publications, the use of twin allusions, and the various meanings of the title itself.
Reviewed on May 27, 2023