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Religion may be a presence, but Lucas's magic kingdom is strikingly sterile. His creatures dwell in a perpetual present, devoid of sexual activity (Anakin, it is strongly hinted, was the product of an immaculate conception), historical consciousness, or even the most debased form of cultural expression (like advertising). Any of these would constitute a dangerous distraction. The Phantom Menace is simply a billboard for itself. Anyone who sees it will be experiencing it for the second time. The hype was not about the movie, the hype was the movie.

The Walter Reade has seized this week to bring back a lesser-known cult film. The Saragossa Manuscript, directed by Wojciech Has from Jan Potocki's episodic early-19th-century novel, is part Alice in Wonderland, part Arabian Nights. This three-hour Polish superproduction—shot with actual people in sumptuous wide-screen black-and-white—is a convoluted succession of stories-within- stories-within-stories, with Zbigniew Cybulski (Warsaw's answer to James Dean) playing a Spanish officer lost in the Sierra Moreno and mixing it up with all manner of hermits, ghosts, gypsies, cabalists, and bandits, not to mention smiling babes with bodice-bursting cleavage.

Darth becomes him: Lloyd with Neeson, R2-D2, and McGregor in The Phantom Menace.
Courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM
Darth becomes him: Lloyd with Neeson, R2-D2, and McGregor in The Phantom Menace.

Details

Star Wars: Episode IThe Phantom Menace
Written and directed by George Lucas
A 20th Century Fox release

The Saragossa Manuscript
Directed by Wojciech Has
Written by Tadeusz Kwiatkowski, from the novel by Jan Potocki
A Cowboy Booking release
At the Walter Reade Theater, May 21, 23, and 24

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Has's comic, macabre extravaganza, in which everything turns out to be an elaborate stage-managed sham, first blew minds at the 1966 San Francisco Film Festival, attracting a New York hippie following six years later with a brief, post–El Topo midnight run at the old Elgin theater. Somewhere along the line, Jerry Garcia signed on as the movie's biggest booster. It was evidently the print he underwrote that was shown at the 1997 New York Film Festival.

The Saragossa Manuscript is being paired with another rarely screened and highly regarded East European movie, Alexei Guerman's My Friend Ivan Lapshin—the last great Soviet movie (and the Soviet contribution to the postmodern nostalgia film)—which takes a brilliant and deeply troubling Chekhovia approach to the Great Terror of the mid 1930s.
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