The Saragossa Manuscript: An Ode to the Journey of Digression

The Saragossa Manuscript | Mr Bongo Films
Mr Bongo Films

We are lying underneath the gallows in a desolate mountainside next to a pile of skulls. There are vultures here. Except it doesn’t actually begin this way. For one, we haven’t yet met the mysterious princesses who transported us here. Come to think of it, we haven’t even been introduced to Alfonse yet, the man we see lying beneath these gallows next to us. So let’s back up and start at the beginning, by skipping forward a couple of decades. 

In the Spanish town of Zaragoza, the Napoleonic Wars rage on. A French soldier retreats from battle to an abandoned inn where he stumbles upon a striking illuminated manuscript open on a table. This book is so majestic that it stops an attacking Spanish soldier in his tracks, causing the two to sit side by side and read out loud together. 

But perhaps I’ve started too late again—let’s skip ahead further. Maybe our story begins in communist-ruled Poland. The year is 1965 and, thanks in part to the Łódź Film School, Polish filmmakers are in the midst of a creative boom. It’s been roughly 150 years since Jan Potocki died, leaving his epic frame-tale novel, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, incomplete. In it, Walloon guard Alfonse van Worden searches for the shortest way to Madrid through the Sierra Morena mountains, if only he wasn’t sidetracked countless times by colorful characters, confounding situations and irresistible temptations. Most likely due to his own reputation as a unique storyteller and filmmaker, director Wojciech Has concocted an adaptation of The Saragossa Manuscript, a film as perplexing and unruly in structure as it is unambiguously rewarding to watch. 

It’s hard to know where to start when you’re dealing with a phantasmagoric epic whose tangled structure unfolds as a series of tales within tales within tales. Championed by the likes of contemporaries Luis Buñuel and Jerry Garcia, and later fully restored with the help of Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, The Saragossa Manuscript has a hallowed space in Polish film history. Bursting with surrealist imagery, reminiscent of a Dali or Magritte painting come to life, and set to a riveting experimental score, the film exists in a past that feels both mundane and magical; opulent Moorish design is tucked away in the basement of a derelict inn, gilded alchemical symbolism adorns the walls of a crumbling castle, women in gold and silk tiptoe between medieval torture devices, all while an ominous electronic soundtrack clicks, echoes and pulses. These contradictions add to the film’s unexpectedly comedic sense of irony that deftly walks the line between philosophical and satirical.

Or perhaps it’s a three-hour long epic that goes absolutely nowhere, creeping by like molasses. 

The beauty of The Saragossa Manuscript is that it manages to be all these things at once. Cinema has taught us to anticipate that one who sets out on an epic journey will eventually, in some way, achieve their goal. While the path this journey takes might not play out as planned, our long-suffering hero does typically get there in the end. Or at least they get somewhere. As human beings we crave and demand resolution; we build our lives around set routines and rituals, and we expect our stories and our characters to exist on a similarly identifiable arch. 

Yet life rarely takes on such a linear shape. The Saragossa Manuscript is less concerned with the completion of Alfonse’s goals as it is with how he attempts to accomplish them. Alfonse thinks crossing the Sierra Morena mountains will prove him worthy of his lofty title, bending nature to the will of man in the name of his king. Yet his chivalric sense of duty is quickly betrayed by his selfishness; at the first whiff of temptation he is immediately derailed by the same nature he set out to conquer. It’s as much of a study in digression as it is an exciting tale of adventure—whether or not he actually gets to Madrid is arguably less intriguing than his struggle as he attempts to. 

Digression is the unsung hero of storytelling. If Frodo had simply hopped on an eagle, and tossed the ring into some lava, we’d have a five-minute story with an hour-long epilogue on what he later ate for second breakfast. If Edmund hadn’t sold out his entire family for a taste of Turkish delight, it might have only been the chronicles of the goat-man in the closet. Atreyu might have never been forced to sacrifice his beloved horse to the swamp in an attempt to hold Bastian’s interest and ward off The Nothing—but that’s another story to be told another time. These journeys lie not in the completion of the goal, but in the distractions that push their heroes further and further from their objectives.

Alfonse knows he’s the lead of The Saragossa Manuscript—at least he presumes that he is. He has the ease of a man who is certain he’s destined for greatness, despite the fact that when we first meet him, Alfonse is flat on his face in the grass. Soon after he fumbles and drops a pull bucket straight into its well. He touts himself as a leader, shouting orders to his small travel party, but he doesn’t command respect. His mule handler Mosquito quickly abandons the party after complaining about the pointlessness of this difficult quest, absconding with Alfonse’s lunch just to rub it in. But Alfonse preserves and plows ahead undaunted; he rides past the gallows where two bodies hang, past a mound of snakes writhing on a dagger, and past the flapping wings of hungry vultures. He rides with the confidence of a nobleman, set out with all of the promise of his bright future ahead of him, right into the abandoned Venta Quemada Inn—like a fly into a web.

The Saragossa Manuscript | Mr Bongo Films

Alfonse couldn’t dream up a better distraction than the princesses Emina and Zibelda. Though it is possible he may have dreamed them into reality, or worse, conjured them by seeking shelter at this cursed place, it’s a kinky chance he’s willing to take. They appear to him in the inexplicably cavernous basement of this otherwise unassuming inn. Scantily clad and sensually draped across an ornate bed, the Gomelez sisters claim to be his long lost cousins. More than just a Woolian guard’s wet dream, they represent a promise of grandeur—the literal shiny distractions that pull us away from our more practical or feasible goals, not to mention our more moral pursuits. The sisters offer him everything; all he has to do is convert to Islam, sleep with them both, and, oh right, drink from this chalice made out of a human skull.

Which of course brings us to the gallows. Alfonse wakes suddenly, startled to find himself on the ground beneath the Zoto brothers’ hanging bodies, vultures flapping their wings around him.

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Michael Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, itself a film adaptation of another labyrinthine 18th century novel, plays with the struggle to achieve a sense of completion to its fullest comedic potential. “The theme of Tristram Shandy is a very simple one: life is chaotic. It’s amorphous,” says Stephen Fry, in his role as a museum curator explaining the story as it plays out on screen. “No matter how hard you try you can’t actually make it fit any shape. Tristram himself is trying to write his life story, but it escapes him—because life is too full, too rich to be able to be captured by art.” 

It’s a theme Winterbottom, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, have returned to again and again, most recently in the variations of The Trip, a multi-part television-cum-movie series that, like A Cock and Bull Story, plays with the blurring of reality and filmmaking. In both, Winterbottom uses the felt presence of the camera as the measuring stick for how little we actually control in life. The characters try to steer their narratives one way but the camera’s gaze, invoking documentary filmmaking, reflects the true reality. These jarring stylistic snaps serve to capture the characters’ artifice while stripping them of it at the same time. 

In A Cock and Bull Story, Steve Coogan plays three different roles: Tristram Shandy, Tristram’s father Walter and Steve the character. Within Steve there are also two more characters: Steve the actor and Steve the man. Steve the actor struggles with controlling his image, while Steve the man struggles with controlling his base impulses. He craves immortalization through super stardom as a way to legitimize his life, but when faced with the work that needs to be done in order to achieve such a feat, he balks. Steve’s fear of failure in the face of hard work drives him towards avoidance—he avoids reading the source material as much as he avoids his girlfriend and their newborn. He chooses instead to indulge in easier to achieve ephemeral pleasures, such as openly hitting on the cute PA, to his own detriment—circling the drain of Emina and Zibelda-like temptations. 

Steve’s own struggles with identity parallel Tristram Shandy’s inability to tell his life story: the harder Tristram tries to include every detail, the more he strays from the focus of his supposed autobiography. Tristram’s uncle, Captain Toby, played by Rob Brydon, is as much of a pleasurable interloper on Tristram’s story as Rob the character is on what Steve considers “his” film. The more Steve jealously tries to beef up his starring part, the more he mistakenly concedes to his now co-lead Rob. Without the expectation of rigid control and imposing goals that weigh down Steve, Rob is open and available to pick up the slack where it’s handed to him. Tristram’s quixotic quest for factual perfection, as paralleled in Steve’s desire for total fame, dissolves into a battle between man and his psyche.

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When we first met Alfonse he seemed like the hero of our tale because that was who he proclaimed himself to be. Again and again he boasts that he is afraid of no man, yet his bravery continually leads him to failure. Alfonse’s attempts to lead through good behavior are betrayed by his inability to account for reality versus his expectations; his blind courageousness doesn’t take into account the indifferent world around him. The viewer can clearly see the red flags where Alfonse brazenly strides past them, from the soundtrack’s foreboding bass line to a stern warning by a disturbed man named Pacheco, who claims to have also chased the Gomelez sisters only to now be prone to recurrent bouts of arbitrary screaming as a result. Yet Alfonse remains ignorant to the fact that his journey has transformed from that of physical locations to metaphysical introspection. He’s unknowingly caught in a battle of wills against his desire to impose terms and limits on an inherently perpetual human struggle for control. 

Jan Potocki, original author of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, was born a baron in the Polish aristocracy during the Enlightenment at a time when culture was touted as not only a pleasure but as a lifestyle. The progressive art scene captivated him at a young age, and his love of Candide and Don Quixote shines through even in the film adaptation of his now celebrated novel. The stories about his charmed and slightly eccentric life feel like a side story from his own writings—he served with both the Polish army and the Knights of Malta, he flew the first hot air balloon in Poland, and he had a near lifelong obsession with foreign cultures and religions. Yet when he set out to write his own epic, itself a lengthy tome chock full of winding stories, interlaced characters and digression upon digression, it took him over 20 years to get down on paper what we have now. It’s a goal Potocki himself never saw to completion. He shot himself in the head with a silver bullet before he could finish his novel, a culmination of either years of depression, or, depending on who you ask, because he was terrified of becoming a werewolf. 

Which brings us back to the gallows. Alfonse can’t seem to stop drinking out of that cursed skull chalice. Each time he strikes out on a different course, making adjustments and changes based on previous failures, and each time something causes him to be flung back to where he began. Most of the time it’s his own base impulses or his desire to prove his masculinity through bravery, but other times he’s all but forced off the path. Nobody expected the Spanish inquisition, least of all Alfonse. In a situation as absurd as the Monty Python sketch, the Spanish Inquisition takes Alfonse prisoner in a cartoon-like dungeon full of whips, chains and spooky skeletons. He’s further rendered powerless as they lock his head in an iron torture device. In what should have been a heroic rescue that quickly dissolves into its own absurdist madness, Emina and Zibelda burst onto the scene with the Zoto’s Brothers. Storming the castle, the Brothers effortlessly swashbuckle their way through these leather-clad inquisition executioners and hooded devotees, while the Gomelez sisters struggle and fail to remove the iron mask from an increasingly frustrated Alfonse. 

The Zoto’s Brothers claim glory in exactly the sort of situation Alfonse is desperate to experience in order to prove his bravery and restore his confidence. Yet here’s Alfonse, the weight of this ridiculous iron vice curving his back as he runs around blindly swinging his sword with the princesses in tow, doting sympathy on him like overbearing mothers. He is only able to get the damned thing removed after he is brought back to their cave, tempted yet again with a buffet of food and their bodies. Alfonse is more ready than ever to have an evening of pleasure with these two sirens after his ordeal but he barely eats half an orange before they are interrupted by the Sheik Gomelez, father of Emina and Zibelda. Now the Sheik threatens Alfonse for daring to be in the company of his daughters, offering Alfonse a painful death or a long swig at the skull chalice.

Little does he know he’ll meet the Sheik Gomelez again, learning the man has orchestrated these roadblocks and distractions as a test of Alfonse’s true character. But for now, we’re back on our stomachs beneath the gallows. Alfonse chooses the easy way out. Which brings us to a new conundrum: who is the real Alfonse? Is he the fearless nobleman who set out to accomplish his task of finding the shortest route to Madrid, or is he the man who perpetually fails at doing so?

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At the end of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain, after two hours of nonstop religious, chiromantic, and occultist symbolism—with several bodies broken and lashed by the elements, their psyches destroyed and rebuilt, and at least one pair of testes sacrificed to the Sanctuary of One Thousand Testicles—the quest all boils down to one big cosmic joke. Who do they find at the top of this holy mountain but a pile of dummies and a film crew, hardly the divine immortal masters promised. The Alchemist laughs an open-mouthed laugh, twisting his fingers by his ears in a childish taunt at these beaten down and broken pilgrims he’s put through days of hell. “Is this the end of your adventure? Nothing has an end,” he declares. “You have not obtained immortality, but at least you have obtained reality.” 

To the Alchemist, failure is more intrinsic to the definition of reality than resolution. The goal of finding the divine immortal masters at the top of the holy mountain is nothing compared to the challenges and the sacrifices they were forced to make along the way; the path to enlightenment can only be achieved through the destruction of the self and our expectations. Staring directly into the camera the Alchemist orders it to zoom back, tearing down this illusion of reality further by acknowledging that this is in fact not real life, but simply a film. This overt breaking of the fourth wall is a winking reminder to the audience that they themselves were a willing participant in this illusion. The Alchemist was never a true mystic, just the artist Alejandro Jodorowsky playing a role in a film he created. There is only satisfaction in this ending if the viewer relinquishes their own expectations and notions of how a film should be structured and embraces the experience as a whole. By physically leaving the theater, having endured the experience of the film, we the audience symbolically kill our own beliefs in this holy mountain, emerging back into the unknown as the masters of our own lives.

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The Saragossa Manuscript | Mr Bongo Films

Wham—we’re under the gallows again. Alfonse is flat on his stomach again, with a severed noose tied around his neck. If there’s any recognizable shape to be identified in our lives it is that of the loop; a concentric spiral that overlaps itself as often as it strays amorphously. Any perceived journey forward is an experience built upon reliving memories that are built from past experiences. The second half of The Saragossa Manuscript focuses on the stories of Don Avadoro, a swaggering gypsy wanderer with a smile as wide as the brim of his hat. He introduces himself to Alfonse while they take respite from the Inquisition at a castle owned by a mysterious cabalist he met under the gallows; the castle is decorated in mysterious archaic symbols and accented with a notion of hidden eyes watching every movement. 

Beckoned by the Cabalist to entertain the castle guests, Avadoro begins a tale of his youth that quickly devolves into a string of seemingly disconnected digressions that he slowly untangles, eventually revealing them to be intertwined. What we thought was a story of Avadoro turns out to be the story of an unfaithful wife, which is the story of when Señor Toledo spoke to the dead, which is in turn the story of Don Lopez trying to win the heart of Donna Moro, which would never have happened had it not been for the rogue Don Busqueros who tells the tale of Donna Frasquetta, which turns out to be the story of Señor Toledo, which ties into the tale of Avadoro’s youth and a time when he observed Alfonse’s father in a duel. Avadoro’s stories carried the promise of a grand lesson and yet they all boiled down to strictly circumstantial situations. There was no lesson learned but that of the power of diversion.

Alfonse conjures up the strength for one last act of bravery. He asks the Sheik Gomelez directly: “Now that I know everything, can you tell me the truth? Who are you?”

It’s not so much the question, but rather Alfonse’s willingness to finally perceive reality. Everything he knew and held to be true—his quest, his expectations, his sense of self, even the overall direction of his life—was out of his control. Avadoro himself turned out to be merely a distraction, sent to hold the guests at the castle until an escort from the Sheik Gomelez could arrive to collect Alfonse. Lounging in the gilded splendor of the Venta Quemada cellar, surrounded by beautiful half-naked women, the Sheik reveals himself as the orchestrator of Alfonse’s reality; everything and everyone he met with in the past several days were his agents, put there to test Alfonse’s bravery and worthiness to carry on the family line. The role of the camera and the role of the Sheik merge to form an omnipresent, omniscient eye that reaffirms Alfonse’s initial worldview as the brave hero of our tale. But we the viewer were there too, and we know that’s not what we saw. Alfonse was there, and deep down he knows this too. He’s almost willing to overlook it—this admission of the Sheik reaffirms everything he’s been working to prove—until he decides to muster up that last bit of courage, his one true act of bravery, and ask him for the truth.

“Close your eyes,” the princesses coo, “When you hear your name, follow our voices.”

Opening his eyes Alfonse is surprised to see he’s dropped the skull chalice. Stumbling to his feet, a dull sense of recognition washes over him. He looks up just in time to see none other than himself following Emina and Zibelda over a mysterious threshold into the unknown. But wait—he turns around.

With the sound of a blood-curdling laugh, the illusion is shattered. We’re back at the gallows. A vulture flies away as Alfonse and his original travel party all get back up on their feet.

The Saragossa Manuscript | Mr Bongo Films

Like the story of Alfonse, our lives are made up of a series of digressions, broken promises, irresistible temptations, stories told and heard, and rude awakenings that bring us back where we started. Taking on new challenges, trying different roads, and somehow making the same stupid mistakes over and over is inherent to the human experience. The loop circles us—we, Alfonse, Tristram, everyone. What is life if not an endless cycle of perpetually waking up at the gallows with two dead bodies hanging over you and a vulture just waiting for you to die already. 

Tristram Shandy does not succeed in fully capturing his life story, but instead realizes that accomplishments are fleeting in comparison to the journeys that lead up to them. Where the 10 pilgrims did not achieve true enlightenment as promised by the Alchemist, they gained invaluable life experience outside of their comfort zones and outgrew their need for a master to guide them. Where Alfonse set out to prove his worth as the captain of the guard, he mistakenly uncovers a vast and indefinable void of possibilities that shatter his previously narrow worldview. There is no final pay off, or “A-ha!” moment—it’s those pointless, meandering repetitions of life that come to truly define us. For Tristram Shandy and The Holy Mountain, the cameras’ stated presence becomes the truth teller that shatters our illusions of control. In The Saragossa Manuscript the joke is on the audience: for the time we’ve invested watching and waiting for a typical adventure film, we’re left with loose threads, an overabundance of information and an open ending, all of which are a reflection of our own false expectations, our own helplessness in the face of the unknown.

And so: does it end at the gallows? Not quite—the only glimmer of hope against this otherwise dreary existentialist terror is in the immortalization of those dull moments through art, whether in the written word or set to film. The last time we see Alfonse he is feverishly writing his experiences down in the illustrated manuscript at a familiar inn in Zaragoza. Sheik Gomelez gifted the manuscript to him, but Alfonse struggles to comprehend it. His story is supposedly over but Alfonse is still here. Where does it end? Midway through recounting his experiences outloud to several pigeons and an equally confused innkeeper, Emina and Zibelda return, beckoning to him. There are two options now: he can stay here and try and work madly in an attempt to truly comprehend this tome, or he can return with the women to the unknown. 

Galloping away on horseback, Alfonse races back towards the mountains and then, of course, to the gallows.