18 August 2009

The Saragossa Manuscript

I'm currently working on a chapter about the novel this film is based on, so I figured I oughta check it out. Also, I was kind of curious how it could be done - the novel is a 600 page behemoth of stories within stories within stories. I have seen one adaptation of it, the Looking Glass Theatre's theatrical version which was, it must be said, absolutely dismal. The thing is, it's a massive text and there's a lot going on. There's no way you can do justice to that complexity in 3 hours. So you have to pick out some key themes and just stick with them. The Looking Glass went with lots of touchy feely religious tolerance stuff with some mommy issues on the side, which involved butchering the text and slapping on an ending that undoubtedly has the author clawing the inside of his grave. The movie, I'm happy to say, did it far more justice. In fact, although it somewhat shows its age and feels a bit theatre-y, it's a pretty well done movie. Then again though, it's hard for me to assess whether it would be of any interest to the average viewer, because I've basically been totally immersed in the book for what feels like eternity.

One of the greatest strengths of the film is the cinematography, which is gorgeous. The second thing that's done well is the overall tone - funny and cheerfully absurd (the material is in the text, but the actors ham it up to the max), but also dreamy and surrealistic, which is fitting. They do change the ending of the book, but honestly, I think it's kind of an improvement. They also do an interesting job on the interspersed stories. While many a director would throw on some Wayne's World diddlyoops or some kind of fade out, here it just cuts to a new story. This might be confusing to people less familiar with the text, but actually, that might be a good thing, because the multiplicity of narratives in the novel is truly dazzling, and this might be the closest the film can get to producing that effect.

The main minus is that the movie is really long. 3 hours. And it kind of drags at times, as does the book, because really, it's just a big collection of random stories. Still, it's an interesting movie, I think, and well worth watching if you can gets your hands on a copy.

*Fun fact: the movie was made in the 60s but re-released in the 90s thanks to Jerry Garcia, Martin Scorsesee and Francis Ford Coppola, who financed its restoration and distribution, apparently out of great love for the film.

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