Long films are, to put it plainly, daunting. Movies released in theaters today almost never run past 3 hours (last year’s Avengers: Endgame is, of course, a notable exception), while lengthier art-house films like Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó or Lav Diaz’s Evolution of a Filipino Family are rarely screened outside of festival circuits. It was only a few weeks ago someone tweeted a viewing guide which divided Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman into 4 sections roughly the length of TV episodes, garnering equal amounts of support and disdain from users. In a culture that seems to have an ever-shrinking attention span, it might then seem more and more foolhardy to make films that require intermissions, or even multiple days of viewing.
This brings us to La Flor, the first movie from Argentinian director Mariano Llinás in a decade which, excluding intermissions, has a runtime of 808 minutes. After 14 hours, La Flor really should have felt tiresome or exhausting, but it instead became one of the best viewing experiences I’ve ever had. Never once hindered by its mammoth runtime or any visible creative restrictions, its unorthodox structure — which Llinás himself patiently explains in the introduction — is at once beguiling and compelling.
Divided into six episodes, all but one (the fifth) star the same four, incredible actresses: Elisa Carricajo, Valeria Correa, Pilar Gamboa, and Laura Paredes. The first episode adopts the form of a B-movie horror — the kind that, according to Llinás, “Americans used to shoot with their eyes closed.” Llinás relies purely on his actors’ expressions and murky digital cinematography, rarely focusing on the wider space and utilizing the musical score (brilliantly composed by Gabriel Chwojnik) to its fullest extent.
With the second episode, the film transforms into a melodrama surrounding the break-up of two musicians, balancing some dazzling emotional performances with a subplot concerning a secret cult who are searching for the means to make themselves immortal. The third (and longest) episode is a spy thriller, moving across the globe from the jungles of Central America to the cold, barren desert of the Soviet Union. The impressively detailed backstories of each woman cover the full spectrum of the Cold War in a way I’ve never seen before.
Llinás examines his own relationship with the four actresses in the self-reflexive fourth episode; even though the women have little screen time, their presence is felt over the entire section, beguiling and trapping the men who come too close. The final two episodes — comparatively much shorter in length — act as a sort of denouement to the previous four, one a silent, black-and-white remake of Jean Renoir’s Partie de campagne, and the other the conclusion to a frontier story about four women escaping captivity from Native Americans. Both episodes contain little dialogue or plot, yet each becomes deeply moving in its simplicity and slower pace.
In contrast to other long films like Sátántangó, La Flor bursts at the seams with its many narratives. Throughout, Llinás uses flashbacks within flashbacks, voice-over narration from several people, different interpretations of the same event, and even renditions of classic literature. Under another filmmaker, these various plot devices might easily become tiresome or overly complex. In Llinás’s hands, however, the twists and turns of the six episodes emerge as a liberating presence, allowing each narrative to more vividly flourish and even wander off on extended tangents. The end result is delightfully compelling, both in its playful interpretations of familiar genres and the total absence of any creative restrictions.
Almost paradoxically, the complex plots give plenty of room for Carricajo, Correa, Gamboa, and Paredes to show off their incredible talents in a tremendous range: the four play archaeologists, musicians, cult members, assassins, rebels, and even actresses. Since La Flor was shot over the course of 10 years, we also witness the women themselves growing as performers. As the film goes on, they each repeat or subvert certain traces of roles from previous episodes, and the audience subsequently begins to see more and more of each actress’s real personality. Llinás puts it best in his director’s statement: “From the different inventions and fantasies that the avatars of the project gradually contribute, one can see eventually the true face of the four women, shining brightly through the fog of fiction.” If it can be believed that actors reveal the most of themselves through performance, La Flor is a perfect example.
Of course, La Flor will never appeal to everyone: its massive length alone detracts many viewers who have neither the time nor energy to view a movie over the course of several days. But there is nevertheless something utterly thrilling about a movie that casually defies any restrictions regarding its runtime, its structure, its narrative, and its performers. It’s a sad truth that the majority of widely released films feel more and more limited creatively with little-to-no breathing room for experimentation or innovation. This makes La Flor so refreshing and exciting to watch, a purely artistic creation made equally for the filmmaker and his actresses. The film’s credits roll over an unbroken 40-minute shot of the cast and crew wrapping up the shoot, a wonderful ode to the many men and women involved in bringing Llinás’s vision to life.
So many films over the past year have left me feeling cynical and questioning about where the future of cinema is headed; La Flor reminded me why I remain passionate about movies after all these years. For that alone, it’s something special.