One story creates another, and then another…
Ah, the Book. You are so ignorantly deceptive at times. I started The Saragossa Manuscript with the foreknowledge of it being only a couple hours, not the three-plus-hour opus I ended up watching. Seriously, I’m sure the editors of the Book know of our little blog club here; I could bet that they could happily hire some of us to proofread the book’s entries a little better than they currently are. Well, with that said, the second in my Poland-a-thon started off casually enough, with the framing device of a pair of enemy soldiers finding a manuscript in a house that tells the tale of one of the soldier’s ancestors, which is the film proper. But from there, The Saragossa Manuscript couldn’t help itself but weave a tapestry so tangled, especially in the second half, that even the Wikipedia article freaking gives up in its attempt to make a complete plot summary of the film halfway through.
It’s always interesting to note the differing techniques and visual styles of directors and cinematographers, even in the sophomore years of cinema, that make films look so much different from each other. That was the first thing I noticed about Saragossa; how different it looked, mostly thanks to the imperfect and unclear cinematography and top-notch art direction. What I especially liked about Saragossa was that there wasn’t a layer of fourth-wall suspension that seemed to be spread across the screen between me and the story; the screen was more like a window into an alternate world that was actually happening, rather than some fantasy that was merely being shown to me. Now, of course, I’m not saying that this is ultra-realistic, or that the fourth wall was somehow nonexistent, but the way the film was presented to me, it might as well have been, and it was a style of presentation that I hadn’t been used to, especially in older films. I also found the production value in this one to be second to none, from the costuming to the locations – everything was detailed to the nth degree, which is usually a good sign for me, and allows me to have some semblance of entertainment where there otherwise wouldn’t be any. Now, all this being said, I’ve said before how the number one focus of any entertainment film should always be, first and foremost, a good story that is well told. This story, to be frank, wasn’t very good, and indeed the film too too much time reveling in how to tell its meandering story than actually making sure it was a good one. There’s a cut in the middle of the film, dividing it into two parts. The first part, even with its occasional layering of a story-within-a-story, I was able to follow well enough, if only because I’d been forewarned of it by the recent review by fellow 1001 Blogger Steve. But then the second part started, and when it began its intricate layering of “a story within a story, that references another story, that ties into the first story by means of a character in a fourth story that is told by another character from a fifth story, etc etc”, I just wanted to throw my hands up in exasperation and call it quits. Not because I don’t like figuring out films like this, ones that reward repeat viewing as such, but because I didn’t care one iota about anything that was happening on screen enough to even bother with untangling the ball of Christmas lights that this film calls its second act.
I’d be a little worried if I were a publisher, and the manuscript for this book, which the film is adapted from, were plopped on my desk. There seems to be no real plot here; it’s mostly storytelling for the sake of storytelling, which can still be entertaining in its own right, but not from a narrative standpoint. What irked me about it was that it was so aimless in its storytelling; it delighted more in the various forms and literary devices used to tell the story, rather than actually telling a story worth listening to, which in all honestly, this wasn’t. There was no reason to care about anything that was happening, since it just seemed like the insane ramblings of some random writer of a century long passed. Then, of course, the second half of the film came along, and any direction I had going into the film was quickly lost. I would have a pretty hard time coming up with a legitimate reason for someone to sit down and watch this one, even one of the truncated edits that existed before the three hour version was restored over a decade ago. So, I guess I shouldn’t. This was an interesting little experiment of a film, but ultimately, it wasn’t worth what one would need to put into it, both in length and in cognitive effort. I can see how this made the list, quite easily, but it was just too much bother for too little gain for me.
Arbitrary Rating: 6/10