Sunday, April 6, 2008

Brooklyn Film: BAM screens "The Saragassa Manuscript" (Rekopis znaleziony w Saragossie)

The influence of the 60s never wanes. BAM Cinematek was crowded one evening this weekend for the short run engagement of The Saragosso Manuscript. A film from 1965, this black and white surreal epic of Polish cinema, directed by Wojiech Has and based on a novel by Jan Potocki is one of those marathon classics that one built one's day around at the old Elgin Cinema on 8th avenue in Manhattan or the Gramercy on Bleecker. Clocking in at a solid three hours, it was a true test of cinema willpower. But, once again, the patient, attentive filmgoer will be amply rewarded.

Basically, during the Napoleonic wars, an officer finds an old book that relates his grandfather's story, Alfons van Worden, captain in the Walloon guard. A man of honor and courage, he seeks the shortest route through the Sierra Morena. At an inn, the Venta Quemada, he encounters two Islamic princesses. They call him their cousin and seduce him; he wakes beside corpses under a gallows. He meets a hermit priest and a goatherd who may be possessed; each tells his story;Van Worden wakes again by the gallows. He's rescued from the Inquisition, meets a cabalist and hears more stories within stories. He finally returns to the inn where he receives incredible news. But this story line is easier said than followed. So, this viewer sat back and let the incredible imagery, contorted storylines and fabulist (sometimes arch and comic) dialogue work its cinema magic.

Although it appears to be soon-to-be-in-DVD release, with the lavish praise and support of Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese, it really deserves a Big Screen viewing since some of the landscapes, filmed in Poland, are surreal and the set designs, costumes, and props are fantastic, in a well-produced, avant garde production. Interesting how Polish film in the 60s, still within the Soviet sphere, managed to mix Kabbalah, Islamic lore and culture, Catholicism and the Inquisition in a curious, mystical brew. It is clearly right down Luis Bunuel's alley, another alleged fan.

The film, as has been publicized, was discovered by the late Jerry Garcia at the San Francisco Film Festival in the late 60s. He donated a copy to the Pacific Film Archive with the proviso that they would unspool it for him whenever he had the yen to toke up and explore this classic, that unfolds, story by story, tale by tale, like a winding clock, for a good 2.5 hours, until it suddenly begins to fold in on itself and slowly, for the last half hour, though to this viewer, not completely, unwinds, so that some of the stories begin to connect, if not explain themselves completely.. Or at least enough to reward the patient viewer with the sense that they have been watching an actual if complex narrative, and even if it seems to have been written on a Mobius Strip. If you contemplate a drink before the show, make sure it is served in a Klein Bottle. Runs through Thursday, April 10.

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