By Hemanth Kissoon
“Must you always talk in riddles?” Alfonse Van Worden
Opening with a stunningly choreographed shot to Beethoven’s ODE TO JOY, as soldiers battle and explosions go off, the Napoleonic wars are merely a historical scene-setter. Two combatants from opposing sides find themselves in an abandoned house and are mesmerised by a very large book they find there. It is in Spanish, one soldier translates for the other. A truce between the two as we cut to what unfolds in the tome.
THE SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT is a surreal epic from 1965. It feels at points akin to a cross between THE SEVENTH SEAL and LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS. There is horror and humour, the supernatural and the erotic. We follow Captain Alfonse, whose mission is to find the shortest road to Madrid for King Philip V. We are in the countryside filled with rumours of ghosts and the devil. Alfonse is either brave or foolhardy, and does not heed any warnings. Ending up at a mysterious inn, he is taken to the basement, where his sexual fantasies are fulfilled by two sisters. The next morning he awakens outside. Is it a hallucination? An illusion? The dark arts? Something more benign? While THE SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT is brightly and beautifully lit (and this restored version looks gorgeous), there is occasionally a feeling of unease as certain characters seem trapped and tormented in their circumstances. Though that sense dissipates quickly, as the tone shifts from characters filled with purpose, to those interested in playfulness. Whatever the mood, there is a huge energy. Directed with panache by Wojciech Has, there is also brilliance to the narrative structure – stories within stories are recounted - making this far ahead of its time.