In what was — and still is — a landmark year for Argentinean cinema (with six movies going to Cannes, two of them in competition), the standout movie of 2008 for most of the local critics was none of those six, not even some others made by internationally well-known filmmakers. It was Extraordinary Stories (Historias Extraordinarias), the second film — or third, depending if you count a documentary about comic-book artists that remains unreleased — by Mariano Llinás, which had its European premiere at the Viennale.
The four-hour movie, shot on video, was first shown as part of the Argentinean competition at BAFICI (the Buenos Aires Festival of Independent Cinema), where it won the Best Director award as well as the Audience Award. The press screening took place in an exhilarating marathon session that started at 10 am and lasted — with two long intermissions — almost five hours. In Vienna, Extraordinary Stories was shown only once; the screening started at 8.30 pm, and Llinás was still doing the q&a at two in the morning to an almost packed house at the Stadtkino Theatre.
What's so special about this film? How has a movie this long, made on cheap video from a director known only to a small group of people, become the "darling" of the BAFICI, a must-see movie in Vienna and, strangest of all, a commercial hit in Argentina?
To begin with, let's say that Extraordinary Stories neither looks nor feels like any of the Argentinean movies one might have seen playing the international circuit in the last few years. Instead of contemplation, there's one adventure after another; instead of silence, constant narration; instead of opacity and gravity, a sense of playful showmanship, like the work of a very gifted magician intent on keeping your attention fixed to his funny little tricks.
It's hard to sum-up the stories and side-stories that make up the film. Extraordinary Stories essentially follows the strange trips taken by three men, referred to as X, Z and H. Their quests never intersect, but all three take place in the vast landscapes and little towns of the Buenos Aires province. X (played by Llinás) is a guy who finds himself the sole witness to a strange murder. Thinking he could have been seen — and subsequently followed — by the killers, X hides in an hotel room where he tries, in his own peculiar way, to understand what just happened while distracting himself, like James Stewart in Rear Window, by observing the lives of the people he can see through the window of his tiny room.
Z (Walter Jakob) is a man who takes an office job in a small, dull town after the guy who held that position for twenty years dies. Bored to death with his routine, he starts discovering his predecessor's secrets, and begins to understand that behind the facade of a simple and extremely cautious man lays a very different kind of person — one whose life was full of mystery and secrets, maps and legends. Z decides to retrace the dead man's steps, moving around the province in a continuous search for adventure that will take him to meet lions and two very loving sisters and embark upon a trip to Africa.
H (Agustín Mendilaharzu, also the film's main director of photography) is hired by a strange secret society for a very unusual job: He's to cross the long Salado River in a little boat, searching for monoliths from an old and abandoned project to redirect the course of the river. In the course of his quest, he meets another man — an old German who may be a veteran of World War II — on a similar (actually, opposite) search, and joins him for a trip that will turn stranger and stranger with the passing of time.
A very small-budget film, even for Argentinean standards, these extraordinary stories are told by three different narrators, who are not the characters depicted in the film. Like Jules et Jim — to quote a well-known influence on Llinás' style — the film has a perpetual voice-over; unlike Truffaut's film, the characters here hardly ever open their mouths. They are ciphers, conduits for the audience, their alter-egos.
So, what's so "extraordinary" about these stories, about this film? Well, everything. From the very unique way the voiceover mixes with the images — sometimes explaining what we don't see, sometimes describing characters; always adding poetry to what's there, what's not there and what may or may not be there — to the constantly surprising sideways turns these three stories take, Llinás' film occupies an unexplored space in Argentinean (and, maybe, in international) cinema, connecting it to literature, music, acting styles and even production techniques in very personal ways.
This is a movie with the spirit of a 19th-century adventure novel — you can sense the traces of Stevenson, Salgari and Poe — but one rewritten with Borges in mind. Classic and modern at the same time ("I wanted to bring back the idea of the XIX century storytelling with modern techniques," Llinás has said), Extraordinary Stories is, in many ways, a milestone for Argentinean filmmakers, because it shows there are ways to make intelligent, fascinating and absorbing films without resorting to the "contemplative" style most young local directors are so fond of.
Extraordinary Stories is not a "conservative/classicist" reaction to the films of Lisandro Alonso, Lucrecia Martel or Pablo Trapero, or a plea for old-fashioned styles of storytelling. What it brings to mind — at least to me — are three other movies in the Viennale program: our FIPRESCI winner, Our Beloved Month of August (Aquele Querido Mês De Agosto), from Portuguese maverick Miguel Gomes; and two French films, Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale (Un conte de Noël), and Jean-Charles Fitoussi's I Did Not Die (Je ne suis pas morte).
Apart from the fact that they are longer than the norm, these four films — while wildly different — have a lot of other things in common: An overabundance of "anecdote", a constant free flow of ideas, the need to tell little stories within stories (not necessarily related, at least not in a conventional way, to the main narrative) and a great deal of imagination that seems to know no boundaries, no roads and no limitations. They are over-ambitious, and maybe even repetitive, but always full of imagination and constantly surprising. Different as they are in their specific interests and styles, these four films are like the toys of very stubborn, wild and creative kids who are unable to contain the worlds within themselves, the flow of their hyperactive imaginations.
Let's celebrate, then, the "extraordinary stories" these extremely creative filmmakers have dared to create, and the pleasure they seem to derive from doing it. Their work may be eccentric, extravagant and, at times, failed, confusing or redundant, but they seem to understand film as a place where joy, sadness, love and other emotions can work together in ways that are magical, unexpected and bizarre. For them, cinema is a playground and their movies are the best, biggest, wildest magic toys in the whole wide world.