DVD Pick: The Sargasso Manuscript

The Sargasso Manuscript The history of the legendary Polish cult epic The Sargasso Manuscript is almost as fascinating and convoluted as the film itself. Released in 1965 to enthusiastic but limited acclaim (Luis Bunuel saw it three times), the film's distributors immediately deemed it too weird (even at a time when art houses where filled with challenging works by the likes of Fellini, Godard and Tarkovsky) and more than an hour was cut before sending the film off into obscurity. Sargasso languished in limbo for decades, existing as a sort of Holy Grail for cinephiles, until one of the film's biggest fans, Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, decided to instigate a full-blown restoration and re-release. Garcia died before his dream was realized, but his mission was taken up by none other than Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, and the results are finally available for all to see, in the form of a fantastic new DVD edition.

Adapted from Jan Potocki's massive, early 19th century novel, The Sargasso Manuscript is three hours worth of dovetailing, phantasmagoric tales-within-tales, so intricately interwoven and maddeningly structured it makes The Arabian Nights look like See Spot Run. The film takes place in Spain during the Napoleonic Wars and is anchored only by the character of Alphonse (Zbigniew Cybulski from Wajda's Ashes and Diamonds), a somewhat clueless soldier who becomes magically transported into a strange book in which he appears in a seemingly endless cycle of surreal and often ribald adventures and ordeals.

The film is a deep, dense labyrinth of Borges-ian proportions, traveling back and forth across time and space, and filled with ghosts, devils, nubile temptresses, con games, conspiracies, dopplegangers, magic, and, just when you thought you'd seen it all, the Spanish Inquisition. Like participants on a particularly devastating acid trip, the film's numerous narrators are easily sidetracked, so that one story dissolves at the drop of a hat into another and branches out in a dozen directions, folding back upon itself to no apparent purpose but to great effect. It's equally difficult to tell what in the film is real and what's fabricated — the ultimate head trip, the whole thing may just be happening in the mind of Alphonse — and the finale is so deliriously open-ended that it's almost impossible to see Sargasso as anything but a story that never ends.

Beyond its remarkable narrative, The Sargasso Manuscript is a beautiful film to look at it, and the restored version presented on the Image Entertainment DVD was worth waiting for all these years. Director Wojciech shot the film in widescreen Dyaliscope, an aspect ratio preserved here and absolutely essential to capturing the film's haunting imagery, as well as the depth conveyed through Has' fluid camerawork. The black-and-white picture still contains a smattering of speckles and normal wear, but it's nothing too distracting; for the most part, the image looks incredible, with crisp contrasts, solid blacks and strong details. Extras include an isolated track of Krzysztof Penderecki's wonderful electronic music score, a gallery of photos and art, and some extremely interesting and thorough liner notes that provide welcome clues to deciphering the mysteries of this most mysterious of movies.

—Lance Goldenberg

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