Mariano Llinas’ sprawling, craftily conceived triptych film “Extraordinary Stories” doesn’t fully live up to its titlein a narrative sense, but it marks something entirely unique in recent cinema. A viewer would have to stretch back to the grand serial silents of Louis Feuillade for something as ambitious as Llinas’ detailed telling of three separate, intertwined tales, all involving men on quests in situations that force them to question who they really are. Long running time (four hours and 10 minutes, with intermission) and dense, frequently nonstop voiceover narration combine to restrict commercial prospects to the Spanish-speaking world.
Though the strongest literary influences on Llinas’ fascinating screenplay are fiction writer Jorge Luis Borges and disciple Adolfo Bioy-Casares, it would be wrong to label the pic as literary per se. Instead, the adventures of men known only as H (Agustin Mendilaharzu, doubling as cinematographer), X (Llinas) and Z (Walter Jakob) come across as self-conscious constructions (a central quality in Borges’ and Bioy-Casares’ work) and journeys happening in the here and now.
While the pic was made on a low budget even by Argentine standards, with a small crew and the support of only Argentina’s Universad del Cine, the final impact is of a big movie nearly bursting at the seams. (Subtitle-watching auds may need eye drops after the experience.) Pic also issues a riposte to recent Argentine minimalism, and specifically Carlos Sorin’s own three-tale pic set in Patagonia, “Minimal Stories.”
The opening passage of “Extraordinary Stories” is the film’s best. X, revealed much later to be a government surveyor, is on the job when he accidentally witnesses two men shoot a farmer in a field. X approaches, thinking the farmer is dead, but he startles the man, who seems ready to attack him; in a blur, X shoots the farmer and flees with a suitcase that may have been the source of the conflict.
Llinas stages the action energetically (aided by hard-working editors Alejo Moguillansky and Agustin Rolandelli), and third-person voiceover narration (by Daniel Hendler, one of pic’s three narrators) while having the effect of a cheeky play-by-play by a sports broadcaster, has seldom been so crucial to a sequence’s power.
Such third-person narration tends to dominate scene after scene, to the point of exhaustion (though Spanish ears may not consider this a bother). This is especially true in the story of Z, who becomes obsessed with tracking the life of the mysterious man he replaces in his job in the Pampas region, where most of the film was lensed.
Third yarn begins with a touch of misdirection before shorting itself out as an upriver odyssey about H, hired by engineer Factorovich (Eduardo Iaccono) to search for evidence of an old, aborted water project.
Llinas jumps between the three storylines over 18 episodes, usually devoting no more than about 15 minutes at a time to any single one. The governing concept uniting tales is how each man begins with a specific task, and then veers away from the straight-and-narrow, bringing the job’s purpose — and, thus, their life purpose –into question.
In this regard, Z’s narrative is the most compelling, as his quest to find the mystery man lures him as far away as Africa. X’s adventure, while involving some interesting uses of voyeurism, tends to stall when X is forced to hole up in a hotel for months after the shooting. H remains stubbornly opaque as a character.
The thesps’ unusual collective assignment — to portray the story without being directly heard onscreen (with minor exceptions) — might be described as silent film acting in a sound film, and is reminiscent of the many non-verbal yet expressive passages by actors in Hou Hsiao Hsien’s films.
As Z, Jakob anchors the pic with a meaty portrait of a man suddenly caught in a shadow world, and Llinas brings X a noirish what-to-do-next tension.
DV lensing in dozens of locations in Argentina’s north-central zone as well as the Paranas River region is physically impressive but never flamboyant. Soundtrack is sometimes crowded by Gabriel Chwojnik’s overworked and insistent score, though the finale tune (by Chwojnik and Llinas and sung by Dietze) is as surprisingly incongruous as it is inspired as a capper. Socko opening titles, designed by Paula Erre and Andres Mendilaharzu, set up expectations for a vivid filmgoing experience.