A Cinematic Colossus: Interview with ‘The Flower’ Director Mariano Llinás

Like his movies, Mariano Llinas’ answers are not short. In a way, it’s not strange that every interview question motivates the Argentinian director to contemplate not only about the process and purpose behind his new film — the colossal The Flower (La flor) — but also about his own place in the current cinema industry, and the evolving definition on what film even means nowadays. This is, after all, an artist  that seems entirely devoted to his craft.

Since his sophomore feature, the four-hour Extraordinary Stories (Historias Extraordinarias, 2008), the filmmaker has emerged as one of the most unique Latin American voices in contemporary cinema.

Meanwhile, The Flower, Llinas’most challenging and accomplished work yet — which has a length of 808 minutes (almost 14 hours) — has won its place as one of the most unique cinematic experiences of the year… maybe even of the decade.

Filmed for almost 10 years and based on the close collaboration between the production company El Pampero Cine and the theatre group Piel de Lava, The Flower introduces four actresses — Elisa Carricajo, Valeria Correa, Pilar Gamboa and Laura Paredes — as the stars of six different stories in a variety of genres: a horror B-movie; a musical and mystery dramedy; a globetrotting spy thriller; a wicked and meta-fantasy; an homage to Jean Renoir’s Partie de campagne and a female emancipation story that was shot through a primitive technique of storytelling.

Even by scratching some of the plot of The Flower’s chapters, there’s no easy way to describe the exhilarating and tiresome experience of going through it. It’s just one of those things you have to see with your own eyes. 

The film has marveled and wrestled with audiences at major film festivals around the world in 2018. It has been shown in Buenos Aires, Argentina and other countries as a three-day screening (with many interludes!) that asks for a rare cinematic commitment with the spectator. In the rise of the streaming era, The Flower has found shelter in the only place it can: a movie theatre.

According to Llinás, the movie’s journey will not end soon. As he told Vague Visages, the filming of what could, and should be described as his masterpiece, was just one stop in the road. There’s too much ahead.   

What kind of relationship would you say you have today with The Flower? How would you describe it?

On one hand, it’s as if the movie is not over. Then again, it’s as if it had never existed. But there is no duel. After so much time thinking about the movie, there could be a tremendous void. But there isn’t. Maybe it has to do with the adventure that still goes on. Showing the film is an art as difficult as making it. It’s not like screening any film, which is something that everyone has done 200 times in all the festivals. The Flower is a kind of monstrous film, and that monster is cinematographic. It’s monstrous because it’s a lot of cinema.

What effect does talking about the movie have on you?

There is something in it that leads me again and again to talk about cinema. It forces me to think about the movies. It’s like an invocation object. At the same time, La flor is like a battleship, Potemkin or not Potemkin, where we try to make a charge. In that sense, the movie continues. It doesn’t end when it’s done. You have to show it, defend it, try to understand what is happening with it. It’s a whole universe. It’s not just a film that can find its place in the festivals circuits. No. I feel that there is something about the film that [connects] with the past, the future and the present. I continue to work for the film. This is not a time for resting.

I was surprised by your stage presence while you answer questions regarding The Flower. You seem to manage a crowd in a very natural manner.

There is a point in which one begins to professionalize these answers and say things that you already know are going to amuse the public. I confess that, when I make presentations after the screenings, what I try to do less is to tell the truth that one does not know and sometimes cannot know. Obviously, people are there because they want something more. They want to continue “seeing.” There is this theatrical aspect of the whole thing, of seeing the director “live,” that interests them. I understood really early that what you have to do is try to extend the film by other means. Keep playing, doing a little show. It is the only sense that I find in this strange particularity that is the cinema nowadays, in which the directors are expected to say things about their movies. The idea that one has to explain his art is a form that I reject.

Why do you think the public clings so much on the idea of trying to understand why it lasts 14 hours?

It is the true price of the film: it takes [a lot of] time from you. It’s like a strong request that the movie makes. Not only the hours, but also the three days it takes to screen it. The other day, we heard about a person who had invited a girl, or vice versa, to see The Flower in Buenos Aires, and we said: “That’s a good sign!”If someone invites you to see The Flower, then it’s serious. It’s a relationship that starts in earnest. There is a game involving the time that makes it a demanding film.

In spite of sometimes feeling tired for spending so much time seated, which I know is kind of ironic, I would say there’s plenty of things happening in the movie that keep you beguiled. 

I feel like the movie is trying to honor that time. It is not one of those films that doesn’t care what you do with the viewer’s time. The price that people have to pay is to give us all that time. I suppose those who built the Empire State Building in New York didn’t think, “Why is it so tall?” No, they thought how it had to be sustained, and how to make it beautiful. Someone will always ask, “Why is your building so tall?” But it’s a logical question, and you cannot fight with that. The same thing happened with Extraordinary Stories, which lasted 10 hours less. There is something about the duration of The Flower that is understandably striking but, well, seeing it is a record in everyone’s lives.

During a Q&A at the Toronto Film Festival, your colleague and director of photography Agustín Mendilaharzu explained that  while doing Extraordinary Stories, you and the crew of El Pampero often found someone in the Argentinian film industry who told you “This is not how things are done.” What did he mean?

That happened all the time. From the very first moment. Once everything went wrong in the recording of a movie — we were shooting with Agustín, we found ourselves in front of a director to whom we asked for equipment. And that director, who was behind his desk in his production company, gave us a sermon. He told us “Do not be children. Things are done in a specific way.”  I remember the humiliation that I felt. However, that man was not correct. We kept on doing our things. Me and Agustí have been working together for a long time and disobeying. There was a time when people went from telling us, “That’s not how things are done” to telling us “That’s the way things are not done… except for you guys.” That was a special moment.

At this point of your career, do you find you have managed to find a way of making your films as you want in the Argentinian industry?

I make a living writing scripts, and very often I see directors that don’t shoot their movies because they do not have time, or the industrial system is a disaster. I find myself a lot of times with directors saying, “Why don’t you start shooting?” And they tell me they can’t because “the movie is very expensive,” or something in those lines. I feel it as disrespectful to me when directors tell me, “I believe that this film has to be done well.” What do you mean? That I am a kind of mutant? There is a kind of great inertia towards the idea that there is only one way to make films. Things have gone well for us so people cannot make fun of us. If they could, they would. At the beginning of The Flower, there was a kind of rumor that the movie was a shit and some people were happy. Then, it turned out it wasn’t shit and it started winning prizes and being invited to different festivals. I felt that some part of the Argentine film industry wanted it to be bad, as a sign of relief for them.

You’ve said that you don’t think the cinema of the 20th century exists anymore. Why do you feel that way?

One might think that it is in someway done. Broadly speaking, what cinema meant in the 20th century means something else today. I see it in some language issues. For example, in one of the most important elements that cinema used to conquer the world. D. W. Griffith discovered quickly that, in the cinema, the look matters more than the words. That idea dominated the cinema. I recently saw a very popular film called The Human Surge, a recent film by a young Argentinian director called Teddy Williams. I found it interesting, but I felt that the cinema meant something else for him. I feel that a Lubitsch film and an Antonioni film were very different from each other, but they functioned in the same way. They generated a type of narration and image basically in the same way by using the look and the reconstruction of the space. The wait, the intrigue, the passage of time… things that are the cinema today I feel aren’t there. What is now called cinema is a kind of recording that can be made with the phones that people wear. I get the impression that movies are now [thought of] in that sense and not like an autonomous object that is an heir to the arts of the 19th century. I feel [like I’m] in a small exile. That I am one of the many last [directors] who want to continue making films as it was understood in the 20th century and does not have much relation to the way in which cinema is made today. I make movies with the nostalgia of that time. 

So… what’s next for you?

The best answer I can give is: The Flower. The Flower continues. In one way, it is just beginning now. That is another of the great perversions of cinema nowadays. The director prepares the movie for five years; does this and that; films the whole thing in a month; travels from one festival to another and then the movie is screened for just a week at the cinema and that’s it. It’s strange. The “talking” part of the movie is infinitely more important than the part of watching it and doing it. In the case of The Flower, that’s one of the disobediences. We took a lot of time to do it, almost nothing was prepared and we did not apply for fundings at the beginning. The idea of showing is no less important than the task of doing it. You have to find the way, and it’s gratifying to show the movie. It is an art, too. People have resigned themselves to the fact that the only cinemas where you can see [art] are those of festivals or chains that have nothing to do with the commercial circuit. I do believe that there is a task to be carried out ahead and a job that we had to do ourselves. You have to take care of showing the film and being your own exhibitor. That’s the future.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Pablo Staricco Cadenazzi (@pstaricco) is a France-based Uruguayan journalist, film critic and member of FIPRESCI. He worked as a staff member for the newspapers El País and El Observador, and he is currently part of the the movie podcast Santas Listas (from @polentapodcast) and the comics publisher Pantano Editorial.