The first thing to know about Historias Extraordinarias is that it is four hours long. The second thing to know is that it is fantastic; but despite protagonists named X, Z and H and next to no dialogue, this is no meditative long-take art-house endurance test; until the gentle wind-down ending it doesn’t flag for a moment. The dialogue replaced by an almost non-stop voiceover narration and from the opening line, it’s like one long shaggy dog story; or rather, as the title states, several stories. The Grand Prize winner at Buenos Aires and now a stand-out favourite at the LA Film Festival, it has been likened by some commentators to Out 1, presumably for its duration and for the plot motor of text-bound mysteries that fizzle out to loose ends; others cite Borges and his labyrinths but it’s more basic and humanistic than either, glancing off the Chinese box structure of The Saragossa Manuscript to reach back to The Thousand and One Nights and the pure pleasure of tall tale-telling as an enjoyably exaggerated distraction from real life.
Those three protagonists each has their own separate strand within the 18-chapter structure and the film flips back and forth between them. X (director Mariano Llinás) witnesses a mysterious and nefarious exchange in a hayfield and retreats into hiding with a pilfered briefcase; Z travels to a small town to take over a paper-pushing office from his deceased predecessor who turns out to have had a secret (and nefarious) double life; H is hired by a small-town civil servant to document the stone monoliths of a defunct hydro-engineering company along the dull brown river that snakes across the Argentinean plata. None of them understands what is going on – the mystery that hooks the audience. Gradually, however, and in differing stages, each is diverted from the apparent thrust of their story. H in fact is already a distraction from the opening of his, which focuses on the civil servants who never reappear; X decides to wait in the hotel until he understands what he has seen, captivated by newspaper reports and the stories from his window, before he decides to open the briefcase and finds another story within; Z focuses the longest on his quest, but with a mysterious notebook and the dead man’s belongings in his bedroom he has the most material to keep him on track. By the end, however, he finds himself in another story altogether, and another role, on a family farm.
Plenty of other stories intrude; some are told by other characters; some are imagined by one of the three protagonists; some simply related by the voiceover. A failed heist plays out in stills; a recap of the opening in increasing close-up slides across the screen with wipes; an absent character appears in Z’s imagination to read a heartfelt letter (itself containing another story, and one of several quietly moving moments in the film). H and Z in different ways are dominated by inveterate storytellers, chatterboxes boastful or boring, and the voiceover is calmly open about their tiresomeness – the narration is laced with irony, the tone that of a seasoned yarn-spinner. It is perfectly aware of the presumption of grabbing our attention in this way, leavening the imposition with dry humour and asides, intermittently summing up or else warning us that what is about to happen will demand close attention.
If the voiceover is the most strikingly impressive feature of the film, it is easy to overlook the accompanying images; they are occasionally allowed a life of their own apart from the narration, once or twice showing us things just ahead of the voiceover’s description and occasionally set free for an autonomous vignette, but mostly they illustrate the story in straightforward fashion; what is most arresting is that so much life has been created on such a low budget. A variety of digital formats are used, and most of the episodes could have been filmed simply by wandering about with a camera, but the images are presented with such a wonderfully inventive economy and such well-judged editing that the film overflows with vibrancy and élan. Close attention is paid to the soundtrack also, naturalistic noises blended with the voiceover (occasionally omitted, occasionally allowed to push the story forward on their own) and the action is embellished with varied and playful score.
The overall effect is entirely captivating, like listening to a grand old story-teller (yet Llinás is only 33) who knows all the tricks to keep the audience’s attention. In such a bold and inventive narrative experiment it seems churlish to wish for a little more reflection and interaction between the separate strands, and the repeated theme of life as a game, the road as a place of adventures is simply presented rather than explored. But for all the loose ends and blind alleys, we cannot help but be caught up in the sheer pleasure of the story-telling and by the end of four hours the film has earned the right to drift off into song and reverie like an old man at a camp fire, and we know it’s time for bed.