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Polish Magic

at Emerson 105 Fri. Sat. Sun 8 p.m.

By Michael Sragow

ONE THING YOU'D least expect from any Soviet-bloc film industry, much less Poland's is an elegant celebration of magic. Wojciech Haas's The Saragossa Manuscript recounts the picaresque adventures of a captain of the Walloon Guards who crosses the Sierra Morena Mountains during the Spanish Inquisition. In so doing, Haas convinces us that we need transcendent poetry to arrive at the ideals we live by. When we want to escape or transform history, as in the era which Haas presents to us, spiritualism proves a better source of values than social traditions and conventions.

At the same time. Haas's film succeeds because he is basically robust and tough minded. His fantasy is founded on an understanding of history, and emerges from confrontation with reality--not evasion of it. The entire film, in fact, is based on its hero's attempt to piece together his past. He has inherited snippets from his parents and culls other patches of information from fellow denizens of a chaotic late-medieval society. Only after he gains an idea of the forces that have controlled him, and the real roots of his family, is he able to direct his future--which he chooses to do through belief in cabalist prediction.

The narrative jumps from one extraordinary incident to another, presenting each within its own relevant encasement. From the outset, we are clued to think that there are reasons not only for the lessons in each fable, but for the mode and source of the exposition. The entire film is a flash-back, catalyzed when two soldiers in an unexplained war stumble over a manuscript and read on in the midst of battle. The words are more important than their war. And the account of Captain van Worden, the manuscript's narrator, is itself purposely convoluted.

Van Worden travels between Andalusia and La Mancha at a time when "Inquisition ruffians" scour the hills for outlaws, and banditry is rampant. He is waylaid, not by brutes of any stripe, but by two gorgeous Moslem sisters whom he meets underneath a deserted inn. They claim they are descended from the family of van Worden's Iberian mother, and wish to love and share him equally because they love each other.

BUT ONCE VAN WORDEN is bedded, he blacks out and wakes beneath a gallows. The rest of the journey is taken up with his discovery of the truth surrounding that mysterious experience. Through the stories of the other fabulous figures he meets--an erudite aristocrat-turned gypsy, a rational skeptic, a hermit and exorcist, a cabalist--he comes to recognize the silliness of most taboos and their religious rationales. And he returns to search for the sisters.

Phantasmagoria is rarely well done in film. Certainly in America the only work which approaches it successfully is 2001--which concerns technology, not humanity. The reason The Saragossa Manuscript works is that Haas sees social reality, when bounded by hypocrisy, to be truly phantasmagorical, and perceives the special logic of dreams. The only man in the film with the same argumentative power as the cabalist is the rationalist--but he is historically inappropriate, and ineffective at protecting himself against Inquisitors.

Haas has photographed his film in consistent deep focus, in keeping with the solidity of his outlook. This is unlike such Hollywood fantasies as Lost Horizon with generalized backgrounds and soft close-ups. Haas never separates his characters psychology from the social choices that are open to them--and the number of opportunities they comprehend.

Auteur critics will probably find Haas's camera angles impersonal and they are, each character being framed only in apt context. What we are sensually drawn by is the terse editing, the stylized settings themselves, and a set of performances impeccably unified in their theatricality.

This is probably why The Saragossa Manuscript, the best Polish film I've ever seen, is a film one gradually works into rather than an audience-grabber. It is worth the patience: as it progresses, it entrances.

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