The Saragossa Manuscript


Based on Jan Potocki's 1813 mind-bending novel, The Saragossa Manuscript, first released in the United States in a severely truncated version in the mid-’60s, has now been restored (thanks in part to the aegis of Martin Scorsese and the late Jerry Garcia) to its original hefty, black-and-white and Cinemascopic three hours. Helmed by Polish director Wojciech Has and scripted by Tadeusz Kwiatkowski, the film is faithful to the mad strategy of the novel, which consists of interlocking stories within stories within stories — or in filmic form, flashbacks within flashbacks, etc. — reaching dizzying peaks of comic confusion mixed with pseudoprofundities regarding the nature of reality.

The central figure around whom all the stories radiate is one Captain Alphonse van Worden, a member of the Spanish Wallonian Guards traveling through the desolate region of the Sierra Morena. Van Worden is played by Zbigniew Cybulski, who was once called the Polish James Dean but who here seems more like the Polish Bob Hope, a clownish peacock who's in way over his head. Van Worden has a bad habit of being seduced by the same two mysterious Moorish sisters only to wake up the next morning lying under the same gallows and next to the same rotting corpses.

When not being duped by the two ghosts, van Worden keeps running into people who want to tell him their stories, some of them supernatural, some of them about swindles, adultery and other all-too-human concerns. The movie is an intriguing blend of a picturesque costume piece and classic ’60s Euro-horror — one keeps expecting Barbara Steele to show up — and has a wonderfully eccentric score by Krzysztof Penderecki. And while the ending is much too abrupt, it's fun getting lost along the way.

Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.

Richard C. Walls writes about film and music for Metro Times. E-mail him at

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