Cinematic virtuosity usually implies a director showing off with elaborate technique. More rarely, it can result from an actor galvanizing the audience with emotional fireworks that make us forget the material. But what about virtuoso screenwriting? Isn’t film supposed to be “all about the story?” If you do not get a strong sense of a screenwriter’s presence, that is partly because most screenplays are collaborative, making it difficult for any one writer to show off. It is also because directors frequently view the script as at best a blue print, at worst something to be ignored. Then there is the question of what “virtuoso” writing would consist? Sparkling dialog? Perfect structure? Constant surprise?
Nonetheless, occasionally a film comes along in which the script is obviously central to any discussion because it is what immediately stands out. In the case of The Saragossa Manuscript, the attention results from several stories unrolling as a single narrative with an almost self-preening intention to interweave them like the warp and woof of a tapestry. The resulting complexity is the film’s chief distinction and perhaps as close to “virtuoso” writing as a film can get.
The title refers to a manuscript discovered by characters we never see again in the Spanish town of Saragossa during the Napoleonic Wars. The action then shifts to a series of stories within stories, loosely tied together by the adventures of 18th century dragoon Alfonse van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski). He is at most the approximation of a protagonist, for structure, not character, is all. Actors play multiple roles. Characters seemingly independent of each other appear in another story. Action which seems to resolve one story starts a second. Events narrated by one character are repeated by another from a different point of view. And on and on. Based on a novel by Jan Potocki, who was also one of the adapters, the subject of the film ends up less the adventures of Alfonse van Worden than storytelling itself.
The result is complicated, to put it mildly. As if to help us keep track, van Worden enumerates the characters and stories up to that roughly mid-point in the film. The brief pause feels almost like an admission that the complications are willed, slightly gratuitous and beyond the control of anyone other than the storyteller.
The baroque circumlocutions are executed with undeniable, considerable, winking élan, but the conceit wears thin. As van Worden falls in and out of one outlandish situation after another, you start not to care. The narrative digressions with often tedious characters are even less compelling, since they are obviously meant just to bewilder further. Eventually, the most profoundly interesting aspect of the story is how to get out of it. For despite the lavish production and occasional wit, The Saragossa Manuscript only intermittently entertains. The flamboyant juggler’s act demonstrates tremendous invention, but after three hours, the net effect approaches a nightmare’s claustrophobic airlessness.