Three central, disconnected stories—each of which meanders off into elaborate tangents. An ever-expanding cast of characters, eventually numbering in the dozens. A running time of just over four hours. Extraordinary Stories sounds like a recipe for pretentious disaster. Yet with the gift of a tantalizing short storyteller—and enough visual panache to justify the cinematic form—Argentine writer-director Mariano Llinas turns a cumbersome undertaking into a hypnotic watch.
It helps that every one of the stories he tells (which are divided into 18 title chapters) is equally compelling. The film begins with X (Llinas himself), a traveling bureaucrat who gets involved with a mysterious briefcase. It then proceeds to Z (Walter Jakob), another bureaucrat who begins a new job only to discover a secret about his predecessor. And finally there is H (Agustín Mendilaharzu), who is hired to travel down a forgotten river looking for signs of an abandoned development project. For an idea of how Extraordinary Stories functions, know that before we meet H, there is a chapter entitled “The Bet,” in which two bickering friends argue over whether or not that river project existed. The sole purpose of this chapter is to set up the reason for H’s journey; as we later learn, he was hired by one of the betting men.
With such structural gymnastics, Extraordinary Stories primarily functions as a meta exercise—what’s extraordinary about these stories, even more than their increasingly strange narratives, is the way they’re told. Timelines are jumbled and repeated. The many tangents are given as much time and novelistic detail as the “main” tales. And did I mention the film is bathed in amusingly redundant voiceover narration, a constant reminder that everything we see is a narrative construct? Often, as the audience, it feels as if we’re being teased—something like X, who hides in his hotel room for weeks on end after obtaining the briefcase, watching the news to learn of any developments in the strange case he’s found himself embroiled in. We’re similarly continually waiting for a narrative turn/climax/resolution that never comes. (To “know nothing,” as one character says, is both a thematic thread and state of viewing.)
And yet, I was never frustrated or bored, partly because of Llinas’ eager imagination—there’s something exciting about his willingness to follow whatever subplot suddenly appears—but mostly because of the visual playfulness he brings to the material. A vibrant, color-soaked title sequence recalls Sergio Leone-by-way-of-Quentin Tarantino. When Z first visits his mundane new office, a 360-degree single take captures the dizzyingly depressing environment. A long sequence of X, trapped and bored in his hotel room, consists entirely of sliding frames, first moving from right to left but then from top to bottom, creating a labyrinth from which he can’t escape. And then there is the botched robbery that unfolds as a series of still photos.
All of this sets up a challenge for the actors, who find themselves depicted more as figures in a documentary than fictional characters (they’re given little dialogue and are mostly casually observed). It helps to have a formidable physical presence—as Pilo Nelli does as the robber, exuding danger in every photo—or the ability to communicate character in a single expression. One of the tangents here involves two sisters on farm who get involved in a muted love triangle, and both Lola Arias and Mariana Chaud evoke all the emotion that’s needed through little giveaway glances.
It’s a strength of Extraordinary Stories that I would have been as content to watch a film devoted entirely to the lives of those two sisters as I was to watch the film Llinas made. I don’t know if I want all of my movies to be structured this way, but as its own unique experience, Extraordinary Stories manages to be refreshing even as it challenges.