NZIFF 51 – Film Review: La Flor

At over 800 minutes – not including its five, 15-minute intermissions – La Flor is a cinematic experience unlike any other, one that transcends any rational critique of film or cinema into something entirely of its own. It is a journey of trust, doubt, beauty, and sacrifice – but ultimately, it is a film that will reveal to you exactly who you are as a human being.

Due to the epic nature of the film, I can’t tell you if it’s good or bad, whether you should or should not see it, or whether it would be worthy of your time. That, I think, is only something that each person who commits to discovering La Flor in its entirety can decide for themselves.

In the spirit of breaking all conventional tradition, this review won’t be like any of my others. Some of you may hate it, some of you may love it, but I ask you to trust that I am writing it the only way I can – in doing my best to express how a film I spent 14-plus hours watching changed my life, my perspective on the world around me, and how maybe, it could possibly do the same for you.

For the sake of brevity and mercy on the person reading this, I will split this review into two parts. The first will discuss the film itself as simply as I can describe it, while the second will express my personal experience in watching it. This second section will contain considerable, and possibly exhaustive, detail.

It is your choice which – if either – you decide to read, just as it can only be your choice to watch La Flor as I did.

Part One – The Film

 La Flor is written and directed by Mariano Llinás, and is the longest film in the history of Argentine cinema. It is a collaborative effort between production company, El Pampero Cine, and the acting company Piel de Lava, a group consisting of four actresses: Elisa Carricajo, Valeria Correa, Pilar Gamboa, and Laura Paredes.

La Flor is a film of six separate episodes. The first four episodes each have a beginning and no clear ending, the fifth episode has a beginning, middle, and ending, and the last episode is just the conclusion of a story. In the opening moments of La Flor, director Mariano Llinás addresses the audience directly, and describes both the narrative structure of the film as a whole, and gives a brief explanation of what La Flor is; a film about – and for – the quartet of actresses who spent close to a decade trusting in this vision and bringing it to life.

The first episode is described as a B movie, and follows the delivery of a mummified woman from a nearby archaeological dig, and the subsequent horrors faced by three female researchers guarding it.

The second episode is described as somewhat of a melodramatic musical, with an interwoven plot around a secret society using scorpion venom to uncover eternal youth.

The third episode, the longest of the six, is about a group of spies transporting a captive scientist to an airfield, combining flashback origin stories of each spy across several continents and moments in modern history.

The fourth is a metanarrative on the film itself, with the four actresses revealed as malevolent witches, and splits the story through manic topography and a rarely published excerpt from Cassanova.

The fifth is an almost-silent, black-and-white remake of Jean Renoir’s 1936 French featurette, Partie de campagne (A Day in the Country).

The sixth is a sepia-toned episode adapted from the diary of an Englishwoman during the nineteenth century, and is both the literal close of the film and a metaphor for the release of the actresses from the project.

At a few points throughout La Flor, Llinás reappears to connect the stories and humbly thank the audience for enduring his masterpiece. He exits the film before the fifth and sixth episodes, while the latter concludes with a single-shot dismantling of the episode’s camera obscura and an exhaustive list of handwritten credits, displayed over the setting sun and departure of the cast and crew. Accompanying the film’s credits is an acoustic-guitar rendition of the song featured in the second episode of the film.

La Flor features Spanish, French, Russian, German, Swedish, and English dialogue, with English subtitles throughout, many of which are imperfectly translated. The film also contains starkly contrasting ADR in many scenes, a wild collection of genres and cinematic techniques and filters, and some of the most painful English-language dialogue and forced laughter I’ve ever seen on film.

To my knowledge, the film is shown in either three or four screenings. NZIFF 51 screened La Flor across three days, the first included episodes one and two with a 15-minute interval, the second included just episode three with two, 15-minute intervals, and the third included episodes four, five, and six with two, 15-minute intervals. With the exception of episode five, the four actresses of Piel de Lava appear in – almost – every scene of the film.

It is a film that presents the life of these four actresses on screen, not as actresses but as women, as human beings, unfolding before our eyes in the same manner as a watching a flower slowly bloom, from an enclosed seed of possibility into a thing of indescribable beauty, one that is both ephemeral and eternal.

Part Two – The Experience

When I sat down to write this review, there were two conflicting voices: my mind, and my heart. My mind told me to write it a certain way, that I should approach it as professionally as possible, highlight each of the episodes and the standout performances in each. That I should structure it in a way that would be easily digestible for a reader, perhaps point out the extraordinary singing and hypnotic stares contained in Episode II, the incomparably intimate photo montage of Episode III, or the beautifully metaphoric narrative within Episode IV.

What good would that do, I thought. How relevant are these moments, these fragments of the experience when not embedded within the experience of La Flor as a whole? In my mind, this review was sprawling, incomprehensible, and devoid of any sanity. Yet in my heart, as it was then and it is now, this review was already written, as though there were no other way to string these words together.

I have always been fascinated by the concept of love. In the English language, we use just one word – love – to encompass what is a momentous and painfully vast collection of emotions and experiences. In Greek philosophy, love is separated into four primary concepts: agape, eros, philia, and storge, with two secondary concepts, ludus and pragma, stemming from the four, and an unattached seventh, mania, lingering somewhere in the shadows behind these.

Agape is used to denote the love of charity, often referred to in context of communal feasts and the unconditional love to your fellow humans. Eros is used to denote the love of intimacy and passion, of profound physical longing for another, and the appreciation of beauty in others. Philia is used to denote the love of friendship, of understanding the depths of another human and acceptance, of welcoming. Storge is used to denote a sense of brotherly love, the closeness felt within a well-formed family and often shared by those who have endured extreme hardships together – it is the love felt by soldiers who have bonded through the torment of war.

From philia, comes ludus, the playful, innocent and carefree love of children, and pragma, the enduring love that is experienced through a lifetime of connection – this is the patient and tolerant love felt by couples who have spent their lives together.

Then there is mania, which is not entirely a sense of love in itself, but the exaggerated sense of madness that can often stem from these experiences. Mania was seen as a curse, an affliction that would consume and taint the purity of these other forms of love. It is the controlling, possessive face of eros, the cynicism of agape, the doubt of pragma, and so on. In our present definition of love, it is often mania that seeps its way into our lives, that presents unrealistic expectations of ourselves and others, and strips us of our humanity.

While watching La Flor, I experienced all of these forms, beginning with the mania of myself as “a film reviewer” looking for reasons to like or dislike this film, to justify its existence and – worse – my decision to watch it. The detached description I provided in the first part of this review displays how I, and surely many others, will feel in watching this initially; the imperfect genre-performance, the exaggerations in dialogue and narrative, the incohesive lack of logic behind the film’s structural form.

But then, in the final moments of the second episode, this all changed. My ego began to fade, and my sense of identity slowly drifted into the darkness of the cinema along with it. I was at the mercy of a film so unsure and assured in itself that this logic ceased to exist, and from that moment grew a small seed of something entirely unique, something that I may not have shared with any other member of the audience. The seed embedded within me from that moment was one of love, the sprawling, complex, self-reflective love that I described in detail earlier.

Throughout the next two days – and 10 hours – I fell in love with Piel de Lava, both as a cohesive singular body and in their individual performances. This wasn’t a wanting, yearning sense of love, but one of intimacy and closeness. Moments that perhaps would have gone unnoticed now seemed to run in slow-motion, distorting my internal sense of time and the lens that I viewed the world – and film – through. I felt a sense of serenity and complete calm, leaving the cinema on the second day with that seed now beginning to bloom in my heart.

On the third and final day of La Flor, I felt drawn to the cinema and the experience again, as though I was compelled to witness every frame of cinema with a longing for inner cohesion of myself and resolution for the actresses and director. The final episode of the film seemed surreal in its presentation, as though I had already seen it or experienced it, knowing exactly where it would go, where it would end, how I would feel about it. But this wasn’t through it being obvious, it was simply the final revealing of that journey inside myself; that a piece of cinema had torn away the constructs I had built around film and instead presented something breathtakingly authentic – not of cinema, but of life, and love.

As the film reached its conclusion, and the credits began to slowly drift over the screen, a large portion of the audience left, as though they had finally achieved their goal of sitting through this epic cinephilic experience. I didn’t feel any sense of frustration at this, or any disrespect from these audience members to the filmmaker and actresses, simply that they had not experienced what I had. After all, what is another half hour in the scope of three days and 15 hours of cinema? What is another 30 minutes of my time in relativity to the decade spent by this cast and crew in creating this?

When I left the cinema, my perception of time was altered. Everywhere, people seemed frantic, manic, rushing and lost in the madness of the city. I didn’t feel frustration at the world around me, but a sense of clarity, of peace, of tolerance and longstanding love with the world and everything in it. Most of all, this wasn’t tied to anything other than existence, to simple be – to be filled with love in a world that so often seems to hide it from those who live within it.

It is in this experience that La Flor is nothing short of perfection. Not because of what you see on screen, but what you see inside of yourself in the moments that follow its conclusion: love – pure and all-encompassing love – blooming from an enclosed seed of possibility into a thing of indescribable beauty, one that is both ephemeral and eternal.

Oxford Lamoureaux