From the earliest days of the medium, the novel has provided room for meta-textual experimentation, with straightforward stories often memorably sidetracked in favor of a broader narrative scope. Picking up on the improvisatory rhythms of oral folklore, foundational works like Don Quixote established the precept of a sticky web of incidents, arrayed around but not permanently bound to a central narrator, allowing for ample opportunity to toy with structure and perspective. A primarily visual medium initially delimited by a wide variety of technical obstacles, film’s history has proceeded differently, with the delivery of plot mutating and expanding as the medium matured. This led, over the course of the last century, to a gradual flowering of movies that embraced a diffuse approach to storytelling, works which reveled in the scattered inscrutability of a fractured narrative flow. A towering example remains The Saragossa Manuscript, which Polish director Wojciech Has adapted from Jan Potocki’s similarly sprawling 1805 epic, a hash of interwoven tall tales filtered through the larger-than-life persona of its ill-fated author. As featured here, the manuscript is a physical object discovered in the midst of a warzone, imagined as a text so compelling it draws in soldiers from both sides, leading to a temporary cessation of hostilities. That their fascination seems primarily drawn in by the tome’s salacious drawings is the first of many self-directed jokes.

Three hours long and bursting with incidents and allusions, the film feels remarkably fleet-footed despite its length, a predecessor to the work of modern directors like Mariano Llinas, who’ve used digital technology to push the niche vein of woolgathering cinema even further. Preserving the novel’s multifarious framing structure, Saragossa courts chaos by having each new tale spawn off several others, which then link back to one another, like a twisted network of gopher tunnels. Time never seems to move forward, as characters and settings reappear in a tragicomic mélange, to the point where mapping out what’s happening when and where becomes fundamentally impossible. This magnificent tangle is steadied by Mieczysław Jahoda’s deep-focus cinematography and an astounding performance from star Zbigniew Cybulski (familiar to viewers of Andrzej Wajda’s ‘50s-era WWII trilogy), who manages to imbue his comic patsy protagonist with the right mixture of farcical self-seriousness and actual pathos.

Meshing with the region’s predominance as a Spaghetti Western shooting location around the same time period, Saragossa imagines early 1700s Zaragoza as a lawless frontier fantasy, a place where the recently concluded Counter-Reformation, and still-roiling Inquisition, have cast the rural landscape into disarray, beset by roving bands of fanatics and thieves. Cybulski plays Alfonse Van Worden, a Walloon guard who spends the entire film trying and failing to find a shortcut to Madrid, a short journey that he will never even get to begin. Instead, he’s trapped inside a Groundhog Day-esque series of repetitions, repeatedly waking up under a grim tableaux of three hanged bandits, rough piles of sun-bleached skulls scattered around the base of the gallows. This repeated scene exemplifies the film’s potent intermingling of humor and horror, which aligns nicely with the shambolic refusal to embrace anything resembling a coherent storyline or clear vision of what’s transpiring.

Much of this disorientation is arrayed around the seemingly magical inn known as the Venta Quemada, from which dreams, nightmares and bizarre apparitional characters appear to emanate. Possibly harboring an Islamic secret society, as well as twin sisters who may be Moorish princesses, the inn functions as a funhouse mirror of the role often served by such locations in fiction, with outlandish stories traded between weary travelers. Here the space becomes one in which the relation of fantastical scenarios leads to just-as-unlikely ones being acted out on-screen, again and again, the participants then cyclically dumped back out into the real world, the border between the two realms remaining resolutely hazy.

What’s conveyed is the spectacle of history spinning in an endless circle, the same sins and mistakes committed again and again. Napoleonic mercenaries in the ruins of a vanquished Spain read about the travails of Catholic mercenaries caught up in a chaotic effort to scrub out mounting Protestant influence on the continent, with hints of previous religious pogroms still thick in the air. All this depicted by filmmakers from a Poland severely bruised by the vice grip of Nazism and Stalinism which pincered it during the Second World War, with Soviet hegemony still exerting a debilitating influence. Such torturous history coalesces to shape a film that, while never overtly political, communicates a certain social reality with overwhelming force, a daring, decisive fusion of form and content.

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