After a protracted production and triumphant festival run, the 13-and-a-half-hour Argentine film La Flor finally arrives in theaters this weekend. Even in the age of the TV “binge-watch,” movies with running times that make Avengers: Endgame‘s much-discussed three hours seem paltry pose a challenge to the average viewer. Such length is usually associated with experimental film, such as Andy Warhol’s Empire (an eight-hour slow motion shot of the Empire State Building) or the current record holder Logistics (which is nearly 36 days long). La Flor joins a tradition of narrative films that embrace such scope, in the process arriving as a rare “event” for cinephiles whose draw isn’t a big-name director.
At festivals, it’s an honor to be able to boast, “Yeah, I sat through that whole program!” But La Flor is much more than an endurance test. And since it’s broken up into four parts, spread out over two days, for theatrical exhibition, it will hardly demand some superhuman level of attention. So with the intimidation of facing over 13 hours of movie reduced, just what does this beast have in store for the viewer?
The film is the labor of love of writer and director Mariano Llinás, made with the close participation of Piel de Lava, the all-female acting group of Pilar Gamboa, Elisa Carricajo, Laura Paredes, and Valeria Correa. It was shot over the course of 10 years in around a dozen countries across South America, Europe, and Asia. It consists of six episodes, each of which features a completely different story, with the actors appearing in most of them, each time in different roles. Llinás pops in periodically to explain the format. (A flower-like diagram he draws to illustrate the movie’s structure forms the basis for its title, which translates to “The Flower.”)
Each of the first four episodes cuts off before the plot gets any kind of resolution. The opening chapter is a B-movie pastiche about a mummy’s curse. The second is a musical drama about two former partners trying to reunite to produce a new song. The third is an epic within an epic, a nearly six-hour spy movie in which Piel de Lava play secret agents, each of whom gets a lengthy section devoted to their respective backstories. In the fourth, things get meta, as the actors play themselves and are baffled when Llinás (played by an actor) abandons their project out of frustration, with layers of flashbacks and nested stories piling on until the episode collapses under their weight. In the fifth, a remake of Jean Renoir’s 1936 film Partie de campagne, Piel de Lava is absent. Notably, while the original movie was unfinished, this is the only section with a beginning and an end. In contrast, the final episode begins in the middle of the story and has a proper ending. Supposedly an adaptation of a 1900 memoir by American frontier woman Sarah S. Evans (I and other reviewers have had difficulty verifying whether any such memoir exists), the actors return as a group of women who have escaped from captivity by a Native tribe.
La Flor has been described as a love letter to cinema itself, while in one bit of narration Llinás asserts that the collaboration with Piel de Lava was so involved that at some point, the project became about the actors. Indeed, with the film’s various segments incorporating such different environs, genres, and even languages spoken (or not spoken, like in the mostly silent fifth episode), the actors and their richly varied performances form the strongest consistent throughline. Gamboa, for example, plays a “psycho-transfer consultant” in the B-movie, a lovelorn pop singer in the musical, and a mute operative in the spy movie. Even the fact that they aren’t in the fifth episode serves as a special contrast; coming as it does so deep into the experience, their absence is so acute as to be its own element. Since the movie was shot in sequence and over such a long period of time, it also demonstrates not just the actors’ range but also their evolution. We see them mature and refine themselves with each new chapter.
There is more continuity to the apparently disparate episodes than you may suspect. One could view the film’s meditation on acting as a series of reincarnations, where each of the four leads tries out a different persona in each cycle. It’s notable, for example, that Gamboa plays a singer in one episode and then a silent character in the next. The film’s scrutiny of genre also reveals the artificiality of such categorizations, as different storytelling conventions bleed between segments. For instance, the supernatural plot of the first episode seems to bleed into the next one, as it features a subplot about a secret cabal trying to brew an immortality serum from scorpion venom.
The sheer variety within La Flor keeps it engaging even through its mammoth running time. It toys with form in addition to narrative and performance, ranging from the first episode being shot on MiniDV to the last being filmed through an elaborate camera obscura rig. Even broken into more digestible segments, in totality it can be draining to take in, though in a pleasurable way. It’s like the feeling you have coming home after a long day at the beach — tired, but it was worth it. An expansive look at the possibilities of many different kinds of filmmaking, the movie earns its length, and will fully reward anyone willing to take it on.