Passing Strange
Damon Smith on Mariano Llinás’s Historias extraordinarias

A mysterious and slippery object no matter which of its many angles you examine it from, Mariano Llinás’s Historias extraordinarias (“Extraordinary Stories”) seemed to arrive out of nowhere in 2009. This exceedingly strange bundle of nested narratives dared to introduce scores of characters and storylines (some rich tributaries, others dead ends), perspectives and locales (Mozambique-for-India, the Salado River) with an almost ceaseless stream of omniscient voiceovers. Despite the recklessly unconventional approach, the film more than delivers on the come-hither promise of its title, blending elements of existential detective fiction, romantic intrigue, and Monte Hellman–esque road movie in a propulsive worlds-within-worlds metaconstruct that makes one forget all about its shabby digital-video format and audacious 245-minute running time—not to mention the incredible fact that it was made for $50,000. Novelistic in scope and ambition, ample in its temporal folds and ironic reversals, Historias is nothing less than an attempt to reorder cinema’s priorities around the act of dramatic narration, to question the nature of fiction itself, drawing on the fables and storytelling traditions of yesteryear. Jorge Luis Borges could not have written it better himself.

An outsider by choice in his native Buenos Aires, where he teaches film at the Fundación Universidad del Cine, Llinás has been active as a producer, writer, director, and occasional actor through his production company El Pampero Cine. But he’s also an iconoclastic, modern-day gaucho who thumbs his nose at the government-funding system that supports better-known Argentinean art-house directors like Pablo Trapero (Lion’s Den), Lisandro Alonso (Liverpool), and Lucrecia Martel (The Headless Woman). Something of a cult hero at home, where his films have screened at BAFICI (Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema) and in special midnight-movie-style theater runs, Llinás remains obscure to all but a handful of critics and programmers who flock annually to Cannes, Venice, San Sebastián, and Toronto. When I mentioned his name recently to a leading distributor of Latin American art-house films based in Mexico City, all I got was a shrug in return. No lo conozco. Only recently has Historias extraordinarias “premiered” in the U.S., screening at a film festival in Maine last year and in special programs like the Latinbeat Film Festival at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, where about a hundred people glimpsed Llinás’s colossal oddity in September. This is hardly a windfall for a picaresque film that merits comparison to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or the Arabian Nights, but sometimes the best-kept secrets yield the highest dividends, as at least one of Llinás’s characters discovers after he spends months obsessively parsing a dead man’s mundane letters in the Argentine provinces.

Three parallel stories establish the basic framework for Historias, which is divided into 18 chapters. In the opening segment (“What happened by the tractor”), a nameless man, X (played by Llinás), wanders into a sleepy country town and witnesses, from a distance, an argument between two men and an older tractor driver, then a shooting. These events are glimpsed in a single, static long shot, presumably a POV from the road where X observes them. After the two assailants peel out in their pickup truck, X locates a briefcase the driver has hidden moments before in a hay bale, anticipating their arrival. The intrigue deepens when X—initially described by the narrator as a person whose line of work is “uninteresting,” who’s possibly an inspector or “maybe a land surveyor”—allows his curiosity about the contents of the case to override his moral sense and finishes off the wounded farmer when he comes to. In the next chapter we’re introduced to Z (Walter Jakob), the newly installed boss of a rural agricultural agency called The Federation. He’s a loner who, like Kafka’s protagonist in The Castle, arrives with no sense of his duties or what’s expected of him, ignorant of the rules and procedures of his office environs. Living in the quarters formerly occupied by his predecessor, Cuevas, Z immerses himself in the deceased man’s handmarked maps and cryptic correspondence and comes to believe he may have been living a double life, possibly as an international spy. The third narrative concerns a bitter rivalry between two civil engineers, one of whom secretly dispatches a day laborer, H (Agustín Mendilaharzu, also the film’s cinematographer), to motor down the Salado River in his boat and photograph the remains of an old, abandoned canal project—a series of cement pylons hidden in the riparian flora—as evidence of its existence. His encounter with mariner-turned-demolitions expert César (Klaus Dietze) sets in motion an altogether unexpected course of events.

There’s no point in offering a complete précis of Llinás’s sprawling film; to create a schematic of its dense narrative configurations and manifold hat tricks (as some have attempted with Rivette’s Pont du Nord) would atomize the fun of experiencing it yourself, and besides it would be absurd to try gathering all the frayed threads. The whole point is to get lost in the story. Historias extraordinarias is a garden of forking paths, to be sure, almost fractal in its generative capacities, like a cinematic Mandelbrot set. But it is worth clarifying that each of these solitary men makes a journey in pursuit of the truth, grappling with the possibilities of personal destiny (their own or someone else’s) as well as the limits of fiction. We tacitly acknowledge ourselves to be part of the quest as well, to play by the rules of the game that Llinás has established from the outset.

In the first story, X becomes a fugitive, holing up in a hotel room to puzzle over the identities of the people he’s now criminally connected to. Searching for answers (who are these men? how did they know the old tractor driver? why did they fear him?), he stumbles on a conspiracy whose unfathomable clues—packed into a dossier of old newspaper clippings and official documents—ensnare him in an exhausting game of imaginative historical reconstruction. Some of his thoughts are rendered as flashbacks (one sequence dramatically revisits the murder scene in a rotating split-screen approximation of mental analysis), others are pure fantasy enacted as extensions of X’s continually revised hypotheses. As he progresses in his deductions, one recurring frame depicts simple white-on-black silhouettes wrapped around a question mark, indicating that a person’s identity is still unknown. One of the film’s only action sequences—a complicated heist involving a jailed Chilean mobster—is told entirely with black-and-white stills in the manner of Chris Marker’s La Jetée, a bravura film-within-the-film that plays at a breathless, absorbing pace. Spin-off segments follow the back stories of characters X is only peripherally related to, like Lola Gallo (Ana Livingston), the distressed woman he sees at certain hours in a hotel-room window opposite his, who may or may not be a victim, a runaway wife, or a co-plotter in an elaborate prison escape. Point of view shifts constantly not only between chapters, but within individual tales, which is part of what makes the Russian-doll structure of Historias so compelling. Stories beget stories, smaller in scale but equally intriguing.

Rich in such creative, constantly proliferating storylines and visual modes (stills, graphics, documentary footage), Historias is consistently entertaining, despite being so minimalist in execution. The key to the success of Llinás’s entire enterprise, however, might be the cunning use of voiceover narration, precisely the device that has compromised any number of great films Here, too, Llinás defies convention. Where Terrence Malick’s narrators, say, are introspective and reflective, conjuring the drifting, dreamlike aspects of subjectivity (or a collective consciousness, as in The Thin Red Line), Llinas’s unidentified narrators—there are three voices, two male and one female—are omniscient but mischievous guides, standing at an ironic distance from the characters and events they describe, at times editorializing or mocking the performative role of narrating itself.

More radically for a four-hour film, dialogue is sparse, even nonexistent in large swaths; instead, there is an emphasis on direct-address-style oration that describes to us important events that are to occur imminently. “So this is what’s going to happen,” the narrator confides at the top of chapter one. “The fat one’s going to go to the truck, take out a shotgun, and kill the driver.” Moments later, he does. But what we’re told diverges slightly from what we actually see. The weapon the shooter uses isn’t a shotgun, for instance. And the driver doesn’t die; he survives. X is the one who kills him. Minutes into the film, we know that the narrators who seem to hold all the cards, and are making a show of them, are untrustworthy, even if we rely on these voices to explain what the images alone are lacking in visual or psychological detail. We are immersed in a game of fiction, as it were, ignorant like Z of “the indecipherable cosmos of rules.” Later in the film, Z pulls into one of the many roadside inns where Cuevas has stayed previously, ostensibly on business for The Federation. As he signs in at the register, the narrator reveals this is the moment Z discovers Cuevas’s red notebook in his car: “From then on, nothing will be the same.” But all of the drama is encapsulated in the tone of that ominously proleptic voiceover; the shot itself is uneventful, bankrupt. Through the lobby window, we watch Z walk to his car, fish around the back seat, and emerge with a red notebook. Nothing in his expression or body language indicates that this is a moment of discovery.

Earlier, I invoked the name of Borges as a reference point, and not simply because the idea of the “labyrinth” that he’s so closely associated with provides a convenient metaphor for the digressive, unresolved nature of Llinás’s baroque tale-weaving. Rather, it’s because Historias mirrors the concerns and sensibilities of the 20th century Argentine literary tradition that Borges helped define: an ironic fabulism, which itself has close filiations with cinema history. Think of Borges’ “Death and the Compass,” for instance, a story about a self-fashioned master detective who doesn’t realize the incredibly elaborate crime he’s just solved is a trap, and a pretext for his own demise, until it’s too late. Similar inversions occur in Historias, such as when X resolves, with ingenious flair, the particularly nettlesome question of Lola Gallo’s identity and her role in the conspiracy, which a series of flashback images support. “He will never know it,” the voiceover then reveals, “but his entire theory is wrong.” The dense plot orchestrations and generous use of genre elements (mysteries, adventure stories) in Historias are rife with the Borges influence as well, reflecting the writer’s lifelong preference for Kafka, Robert Louis Stevenson, G.K. Chesterton, and Edgar Allan Poe, whose masterfully crafted works he championed to younger protégés like Adolfo Bioy Casares. (The Invention of Morel, Casares’s most important novel, became the basis for Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad, a film that Llinás consciously echoes in Historias’ multifaceted memory games.)

In an interview with a Buenos Aires–based film journal, Llinás remarked that he thinks of his film as being in a dialogue with Argentine identity, as well as his country’s cinema tradition, which rings true in numerous senses. For one thing, considering the paucity of dialogue, Historias is quite an extraordinary written piece that pays homage to another local literary giant, Julio Cortázar, emulating the episodic structure and metanarrative approach of his groundbreaking novel Hopscotch (multiple omniscient narrators, “expendable” chapters, optional endings). And in Argentina, perhaps more than any other Latin American nation, there have been endless cross-currents between literature and film, as many writers in the high modern tradition have taken inspiration from New Wave filmmakers, and vice versa. Following the lineage Llinás invokes can become a hopscotching game of its own, a kind of detective work that opens up stories that circle back on themselves. Borges and Casares, for instance, wrote two scripts for the French-Argentinean director Hugo Santiago (1969’s Invasión and 1974’s The Others), who later narrated Three Crowns of the Sailor for Chilean master Raúl Ruiz, a stories-within-stories drama hugely indebted to Borges. (It was shot by Sacha Vierney, who lensed Last Year at Marienbad.) Cortázar’s story “The Droolings of the Devil” became the basis for Antonioni’s Blow-Up, and may have influenced Godard as well.

At the end of the day, when watching Historias, it hardly matters whether you’re acquainted with Argentine fiction or distant pockets of what, for most people, would count as fairly obscure cinema history. Historias extraordinarias is a paragon of suck-you-in storytelling, a handmade object so exotic and dazzling that you instantly overlook its low-rent production values. Even the music—a propulsive blend of Latin rhythms and Marc Ribot–ish guitarwork—provides an irresistible texture and a sense of unresolved tension. After the astonishing appearance of a lion (real, living, panting heavily) pushes the film into the realm of the fantastic, another Argentine specialty, all bets are off. There’s simply no way to predict where these hyperimaginative fables are going to lead. The film doesn’t resolve its three main narrative branches so much as suggest possible outcomes for X, Z, and H, but the point of embarking on this particular road is the journey itself. As César sings so plaintively over the final sequence, his aged voice cracking like timber, “The road will take you away...”