I know you've all got more important things on your mind, but
lately I've been thinking - whatever happened to Polish cinema? It was once the
cinema powerhouse of Eastern Europe with
directors like Roman Polanski, Jerzy Skolimowski, Krzysztof Zanussi, Andrzej Wajda
and Krzysztof Kieslowski. Lately there just
have been the occasional entry, like Wajda's "Katyn"
and Skolimowski's upcoming "Four Nights of Anna."
What brings this to mind is the release a couple of weeks ago on
DVD of Wojciech Has's visionary shaggy dog story "The Saragossa Manuscript"
(Facets, $29.95). This
1965 three hour three ring surreal circus has found its way on the best movie
list of such people as Luis Buñuel, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and
David Lynch. Gerry Garcia also liked the movie so much that he had friends
track in down in order to get it re-released. It took them two years until they
finally did so on August 8, 1995. Garcia died the next day.
He's not the only one who's life took a fatal turn after their
encounter with this story. The star of the film, Zbigniew Cybulski, got hit by
a train in 1967, a couple of years after it was released. And the author of the
1814 Polish novel from which it was adapted killed himself shortly after he
completed it. So, a word to the wise.
At any rate here's my review written when it was released in
these parts in 1999:
Polish director Wojciech Has's 1965 film... might be the last
word in organic storytelling. It's the recombinant DNA of narrative, with tale
chasing tale to no seeming end other than its own proliferation.
In Saragossa Spain a
Napoleonic officer, his command routed, takes refuge in a battered inn. There
he becomes engrossed in an old tome with tarot-like illustrations
and is joined
in this perusal by an enemy officer about to capture him, who claims the book
is about his father, Captain Alphonse van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski, the
so-called "Polish James Dean," here looking more like the Polish Vincent
D'Onofrio) of the Walloon Guards.
A cut is made to the first of many stories within stories as
Alphonse journeys to a baroquely bleak Spanish village where he meets, among
others, a pair of seductive Muslim sisters,
a bearded hermit, a demonically
possessed lunatic, a Caballist, a rationalist philosopher, and a Gypsy, and,
when you least suspect it, the Spanish Inquisition. Most have their own stories
to tell, usually involving meetings with other characters with stories as well,
and so on, with each ending more or less with Alphonse waking up rubbing his
head next to the mouldering remains of the unfortunate Zota brothers (You can
see why Luis Buñuel was a big fan, as this nightmarish motif is reminiscent of "The
Exterminating Angel" and "The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeosie.")
At a fully restored three hours this can get exhausting, though
the black-comic tone, near-surreal black-and-white scope cinematography, and
spooky, rollicking score by Krzysztof Penderecki keep the narrative wheels
spinning merrily. What does it all mean? Recurring themes include paternal
tyranny and, of course, the uncertainty of a universe in which you can at any
moment wake up next to a gibbet or a half-eaten banquet with a vague sense of
transgression. Mostly, though, it's about the sheer exuberance of a good yarn -
and the void it distracts us from.