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A Dizzy Web of Tales

The macabre, convoluted 'Saragossa Manuscript' pushes the concept of 'Arabian Nights' to the limit.

June 17, 1999|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For roughly the first half of its 180 minutes, "The Saragossa Manuscript" is a masterpiece of the macabre, but the second is spoiled by mounting tedium. However, any judgment of this lavish, 1965 Polish production, which the American Cinematheque is screening today (at 8 p.m.) through Sunday at the Lloyd E. Rigler Theater at the Egyptian (6712 Hollywood Blvd.), must ultimately be tentative, because even with good subtitles one cannot hope to keep track of one of the most convoluted plots in the history of the movies. It is being presented by Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, who with the Grateful Dead's late Jerry Garcia rescued and restored it for preservation at the Pacific Film Archive.

Indeed, that complexity is the whole point of Jan Potocki's witty 18th century classic, brought to the screen by director Wojciech Has with breathtaking splendor. Having entertained his ailing wife with the tales of "A Thousand and One Nights," Potocki decided to write for her a Polish "Arabian Nights," in which he pushed the device of a story within a story within a story almost to infinity.

Hero Alphonse van Worden, a young captain in the Wallonian Guards of the king of Spain toward the end of the Napoleonic era, encounters on his way to Madrid two Moorish princesses while staying overnight in a deserted inn in the rugged mountains of the Sierra Morena. They tell him that as the descendant of a powerful Moorish family, he has been entrusted with several missions, but he must first be tested to prove his honor.

What follows is a series of fantastic adventures that eventually lead Worden to an encounter with a magician and a mathematician, who struggle for control of his soul. Each tells myriad stories, with characters who in turn relate their tales--all of which takes us further away from the hero and creates an added challenge for those of us who do not speak Polish.

Even so, it's easy to praise the superb acting of the huge cast, headed by a dashing, aristocratic Zbigniew Cybulski, who is barely recognizable as the same man who won international fame as the bespectacled hero of "Ashes and Diamonds." Elaborate costumes and sets and stunning photography (which captures the antique quality of Goya prints) are flawless. The deft juxtaposition of striking images of beauty and terror is the equal of anything by Ingmar Bergman, a director with whom Has has much in common, both in style and themes. Also at the Cinematheque: "Down Under Shorts," a program of short films from Australia (and one from New Zealand). (323) 466-FILM.

*

"Changing the Guard: The Festival of New British Cinema" continues Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Bing Theater (5905 Wilshire Blvd.) with the venturesome, well-acted "Urban Ghost Story," in which destructive supernatural forces invade the drab housing project apartment of a Glasgow teenager, her single mother and her little half-brother. Considering that the family is barely managing and that the mother is being seriously menaced by loan shark goons, piling on the paranormal seems a bit much. But at the core, "Urban Ghost Story," directed by Genevieve Joliffe and co-written by Chris Jones, does a virtuoso job of playing kitchen-sink realism against "Poltergeist"-like happenings as a way of boldly underlining social commentary on the family's dire straits. Those straits include, in particular, the daughter's shaky emotional state in the wake of a car accident that claimed the life of a friend. Also screening is a program of short films by new directors.

The series continues Saturday at 7:30 p.m. with the rowdy and violent "Divorcing Jack," which you could imagine scoring on home ground but which does not travel particularly well. David Thewlis stars as a boozy, boisterous Belfast newspaper columnist who is deeply skeptical that a charismatic candidate for prime minster in Northern Ireland will be able to deliver the peace he promises. Meanwhile, the married columnist commences an affair with a beautiful art student (Laura Fraser), who swiftly winds up with her throat slashed and whose dying words are the puzzling "divorcing Jack."

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