by Joel Bocko
What comes to mind when you hear the words “extraordinary stories”? An adventurous journey down a long river, pursuing a strange and possibly illicit mission? A mysterious murder, witnessed by a man who flees and hides from his pursuers while unraveling the crime? A journey spanning years and continents, in pursuit of a buried treasure? Is it war which quickens the pulse, with its threat of violent death and suggestion of enemies hidden away in the jungle, waiting to launch a guerrilla attack? Or perhaps you are a romantic, and your extraordinary story would involve an enigmatic woman, whose enchanted entrance into your life seems to foreshadow an implicit departure – one which arrives one day, confirming your suspicions while breaking your heart. As you’ll notice, the title of Argentinian writer/director Mariano Llinás’ remarkable film is plural. Not one but all of these storylines are pursued (simultaneously, no less), with surprising results.
The movie still awaits anything approaching a “wide” release (it was shown at the L.A. Film Festival in June, and at the Music Hall in Portsmouth, NH as part of the Maine International Film Festival.) Sometimes, of course, a story is heightened by anticipation, though one hopes in this case anticipation has its reward. Still, the film is worth discussing now, its presence worth sharing like a hidden secret, one almost worth a treasure map of its own. Though no map could cover Historias Extraordinarias‘ roaming journeys, or do justice to the intricacy and richness of the experience. Nor could a map convey the most extraordinary aspect of these stories: the way they are told. For it is not the destinations of a journey which are most important, nor even the journey itself, per se. Rather it is the details accumulated along the way which glue us to the page or the screen.
A surprising fact about Historias Extraordinarias: there is virtually no dialogue (and what there is serves more as background noise than conversation). Yet the film is not silent. Far from it – the story has a narrator, and he never shuts up. Every scene is narrated from beginning to end, with our storyteller informing us not only of what is happening, but also what the characters are thinking – and occasionally what the narrator himself is thinking, regardless of the characters. Needless to say, voiceovers violate the Golden Rule of Screenwriting 101: show, don’t tell. Llinás’ narrator tells, and tells, and tells, to the point where the film could be considered an oration first and foremost, with the visuals as illustrations along the way.
Of course, this conception would be deeply flawed. Historias Extraordinarias is a motion picture, after all, and the visuals are absolutely essential to the storytelling, because Llinás has set in play a delicate dance between imagination and observation. All of those previously laid-out storylines unfold within a plausibly mundane and unpredictable universe. The treasure hunter comes across his clues while working in a provincial backwater bureaucracy. The river which one adventurer traverses is the most unpresuming body of water in Argentina. While the murder is real enough, it is never clear that the murderers actually saw their witness, and so his hideout stretches on and on in the uncertainty that he actually needs to hide from anything at all.
All of this is conveyed in a relaxed visual style, echoing documentary and further convincing us that we are situated in something close to the real world, albeit with slightly magical underpinnings. That plotlines are allowed to dissipate, while new distractions arise (the treasure hunter pauses his search to live with a farming family; the river-comber joins forces with a saboteur and both are arrested by police) only adds to the richness of the experience. Occasionally, an aside rises from the horizon and takes over the movie for a passage: when the fugitive sees a report about a missing woman, he connects her to the murder he observed, and even concocts an elaborate backstory for her involvement and disappearance.
An erroneous supposition, in fact; as Llinás is eager to reveal, her true story has nothing to do with the crime. However, the narrator is so fascinated by the possibilities of this other story that he launches into the woman’s history, a tale of a free spirit bound at times to different men, only to break their hearts and fly away. It is a telling episode, for this mysterious lover’s restlessness is reflected by the film around her. Historias Extraordinarias flows not with the relentless forward motion of classical storytelling but with an almost musical logic, allowing its subtle passions and inclinations to guide it down one path or another. Leisure is the essential element here: Llinás has allowed his stories room to breathe, and the air grows fresher with each new breath its characters draw.
The film has its flaws. Its loose and informal style draws the viewer remarkably close to the characters and events, but can also appear amateurish at times. For example, a character speculates on the identity of some criminals, and we are shown black-and-white silhouettes with question marks over their faces. The effect is embarrassing, like something out of a chintzy 90s computer project. Likewise, it is hard for Llinás’ narrative to sustain more overtly adventurous elements; the strain shows when an old man narrates a World War II episode. Suddenly it seems Llinás is trying too hard – we are never quite convinced we are in the war, and the attempt to force a conclusion butts up against the rest of the film’s steady admonition to go with the flow.
However, these are minor drawbacks to an astonishing accomplishment. More often, Llinás’ visuals intrigue with their reticence; his home-movie views of backwater Argentina glorify and romanticize the mundane in a way that more bombastic filmmaking never can. Meanwhile, the constant flow of the narration frees the visuals – they are no longer forced to carry the weight of the storytelling by themselves, and so we can behold them with a fresh wonder, as revelations in and of themselves, with no double purposes. The images free the narrator as well; he does not need to describe what we are seeing or attempt to paint a picture in our minds. Instead, he can scratch beneath the surface by making piquant observations about office workers who would rather grapple with a problem than solve it (as it makes a pleasant distraction), or suggesting the subtle shifts in relationship between the treasure hunter and the daughters of the old farmer.
Together, the independent yet mutually beneficial relationship of the visuals and narration reinforces the sense of freedom, of limitless opportunities. Here we touch upon the root delight in hearing, and sometimes in telling, stories: not knowing where we’re going, and not wanting to know. I have only seen Historias Extraordinarias once (indeed, I do not know when I’ll have my next opportunity, unfortunately) but I suspect this impression of unpredictability will remain upon revisiting. After all, the cinéma vérité atmosphere will continue to hint at unfolded discoveries beyond the horizon, and the intensely focused, termitic passion should continue to fascinate (an observation of a street romance, building day after day, from a motel window; a documentary reconstruction of the life of a rogue architect, who eschewed urban work for nearly demonic bureaucratic projects in the provinces…fictional? I hope so.)
Above all, the stories and the style create their own sense of time and space, enfolded within the film, beacons from another world much like our own, yet shimmering with a hard-to-pin-down quality of looseness and freedom. Here, everyday life becomes transcendent – even (in this film, especially) bureaucrats are explorers and adventurers – and the passage of months can feel like days, or the passage of days like months, depending on one’s mood.The horizon beckons with promise, each location carries a charge of magic, the people we pass by hold hidden, fascinating histories.
Llinás obviously echoes the great French director Jacques Rivette, whose films were also long, loose, open-ended, and spontaneous (and whose own nondescript camera style also managed to draw us further into his oneiric onscreen worlds). However, Rivette’s films sparkle with sly subversion and aggressive esotericism, while Llinás’ work glows with a broader, more humanistic spirit. Rivette tends to focus on limited locations, often interior, in which he burrows away with the intensity and fervor of a Poe. Llinás rambles and shambles all over the land like a Whitman, democratically drawing out the life force in every passing stranger, every modernist town square, every buried newspaper story. In the end, he turns you out into the street ready to discover the extraordinary which exists all around you, waiting for its story to be explored.
(I am discussing this film a good while after seeing it; some of the details remain hazy while the overall impression remains. For a more specific look at some of the charms, read Michael Vox’s delighted review from earlier this year.)
[Originally this post provided a link to my piece, which was first posted on the Examiner. As of 1/29/10, it has been moved here in its entirety.]