The independent Argentine film Extraordinary Stories interweaves the obscurely circuitous story lines of three cryptically named and decidedly unextraordinary characters: H (Agustín Mendilaharzu, the film’s cinematographer), a visibly bored civil engineer; X (Mariano Llinás, the director), a frustrated architect slumming as a land surveyor; and Z (Walter Jakob), a midlevel bureaucrat in a provincial agricultural agency.
The movie was shot on low-definition digital video, has a running time of four hours and requires non-Spanish speakers to struggle through an onslaught of subtitles that barely keep pace with the verbose voice-over narration. Yet Extraordinary Stories is a contagiously playful and thrillingly inventive work, a film that’s more compulsively watchable and conventionally entertaining than any synopsis would begin to suggest.
A surprise success in its native country, Extraordinary Stories bears little resemblance to the rigorous minimalism that festival audiences have come to expect from Argentina’s art-house fare. In stark contrast to his better-known compatriots Lisandro Alonso and Lucrecia Martel, Mr. Llinás crowds his story lines with shaggy-dog digressions and a surplus of anecdotal detail. Disparate genres are pastiched: adventure and detective fiction, small-town comedies and slice-of-life character sketches, docudramas and essay films. The results are at once instantly accessible and like nothing I’ve ever seen.
Barnnavan Gnanalingam for The Lumiere Reader:
Loosely based on the tales of three men (portentously given the names H, X, Z), Extraordinary Stories shifts as fluidly as a Thomas Pynchon novel. The film’s melange of historical events, frequent narrative digressions, treasure hunts, conspiracy theories, constant movement, and mysterious strangers also add to the Pynchonian feel. Furthermore, the labyrinths within the narrative, the temporal instability, and the forking paths of the story also clearly bring to mind fellow Argentine Jorge Luis Borges. Through all this, the film never manages to collapse under the weight of its ‘literary’ leanings. Its multiple narratives remain compelling, the subplots frequently brilliant, while director Mariano Llinás is in complete control, even if the stories veer towards the incredulous at times.
Straight’s Mark Harris also stresses the literary analogies:
When you consider that Jorge Luis Borges was not only the greatest Latin America writer but also the greatest writer in Spanish since Cervantes, it’s surprising how little influence this Argentine fabulist has exercised over his cinematic compatriots. Mariano Llinás is a happy exception to this rule. Extraordinary Stories crosshatches three mysterious narratives, featuring three different questers with Kafkaesque letter names, who solve one mystery only to see another open up before their eyes. The key word here is labyrinths.
As does Damon Smith at Reverse Shot:
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.
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.