Norte, the End of History

 

Cast: Sid Lucero, Archie Alemania, Angeli Bayani, Mae Paner, Soliman Cruz

Director: Lav Diaz

Running Time: 4 hours 10 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


When Lav Diaz's Norte, The End of History premiered at the 2013 Film Festival, it was unanimously hailed as a masterpiece, something outside of rigid analysis, something, to put it bluntly, of Dostoyevskian greatness. Of course, the Dostoyevsky reference is apt in this case, seeing has how Diaz's grand tragedy is a remaining of "Crime and Punishment", that most hollowed of all Dostoyevsky texts, and something that's undeniably difficult to translate to the screen. At 250-minutes, Norte, The End of History is a tale of global capitalism, violence, forgiveness, and doomed fate that places it's themes within the context of modern-day Philippines.

What the film is not, contrary to those early festival reports, is a flawless masterwork. The tendency to simply praise the film for undertaking difficult subject matter, running a gargantuan length, and coming out of an area of the world not known for incisive social commentary and epic tragedies is incredibly tempting, but also somewhat reductive. Truthfully, Norte, The End of History features moments of such gripping power and emotional resonance that the times where Diaz seems lost in the beauty of his own long-take compositions aren't damaging. In fact, a case could be made that Diaz's approach to slow cinema allows him to build a certain level of naturalistic tension and near-operatic grandness. This isn't accomplished in a heightened, visually arty manner; though there are moments of Tarkovsky-esque lyricism punctuating certain sequences, but rather by his brilliant decision to eschew standard cinematic technique such as closeups, two-shots, and conventional editing. Sometimes, Diaz slowly pushes in or pulls back on a central image, while at other times, he simply lets the composition sit still for what seems like an eternity.

While it's true the storyline here could have been tackled in a more traditional 2-hour narrative, the runtime does allows the viewer to get lost in the daily rhythms of the characters and for Diaz to create an atmosphere of existential angst. The use of off-screen space, where violent acts are obscured by doorways, bushes, or adjacent rooms, is also one of the filmmaker's boldest moves. It not only makes the heinous actions more chilling (hearing the sounds of someone being stabbed or raped is always more disturbing than it being gratuitously shown), but it also creates a situation where the audience is denied "payoff" scenes found in so many American pictures, which often use violence as a means for titillation.

The plot revolves around two characters; a self-obsessed revolutionary named Fabian (Sid Lucero), and decent, hardworking husband and father Joaquin (Archie Alemania). Fabian is the perfect distillation of a fervent intellectual who justifies his rage at society by invoking Filippino nationalist icons and having lengthy conversations with his law student friends that often play like pseudo-intellectual babble. Fabian proves to be the worst kind of person to lead a revolution, a man whose anger resides firmly in a kind of condensed ethos devoid of legitimate rationalism. When he finally decides to take action, his decision to murder a wealthy pawn broker and her daughter in cold blood reeks of misguided narcissism. The fact that Joaquin, who was also in debt to the murdered woman and had a scuffle with her earlier that day, is falsely convicted of the crime, gives Diaz the opportunity to not only critique the legal system in the Philippines, but also to set in motion Fabian's downward spiral and examine the emotional consequences of everyone involved.

The allegorical thrust of juxtaposing a genuinely good, socially poor man bearing the weight of a wealthier, morally duplicitous man's crimes seems simplistic, but Diaz has such command of his visuals and his actors are so good at conveying their character's inner lives, that nuance is drawn from the small details rather than some grand sociopolitical analysis. For example, a scene during a brief visitation between Joaquin and his wife is heartbreaking, not because of extended dialogue or some kind of critique about the Philippine prison system, but because Diaz simply trains his camera in a long medium shot of the wife's reaction. It's a moment of great acting, where we see the pain and unfathomable suffering she must be processing writ large on her face, knowing full well that her husband will spend the rest of his life behind bars. Diaz never punctuates the moment by pushing in with his camera or cutting to a closeup, and there's no melodramatic swells on the soundtrack in order to elicit emotion. Meanwhile, scenes involving Fabian's increasingly unhinged mental state are rendered with a detached minimalism that makes the character's hollow emptiness and half-hearted attempts at redemption all the more disturbing. A sequence where Fabian attends a Christian meeting with some co-workers is a tour de force of Diaz's long-take aesthetic, allowing Lucero to deliver a show-stopping flurry of tears, muffled half-confessions, and blinding rage at a God whom he believes will never forgive him. It's a great scene in a film full of great scenes, some of which float by almost casually, with others that feel immediately forceful, so much so that they linger long in the memory.

Norte, The End of History is an experience; the kind of thing that envelops the audience inside it's deliberate rhythms and unsentimental view of northern Philippine culture. Diaz uses his asymmetrical wide-screen compositions not as pretentious noodling, but as a way of expressing how his society is both economically and politically corrupt. The real tragedy, and what lends the final hour kind of staggering fatalism it richly deserves, is that this so-called "end of history" is an inevitability, something that cannot be fixed. Revolution, whether it be under the guise of faux-intellectual posturing or the well-meaning poor rising up to fight injustice, seems like a battle forever doomed for failure. During the last moments, Diaz takes a surprising turn toward the opaque and enigmatic, showing us sequences that may either be allegorical remnants of a society collapsing under the weight of it's own corruptness or simply another stab at Tarkovsky-like lyricism. Whatever the case, there's no doubt that Norte, The End of History is work of moving humanism, despite it's unbearably bleak subject matter, a film just as open to the prospect of human forgiveness (seen most prominently in Joaquin's quiet dignity while suffering in prison) as it is with detailing the primal beast at the heart of man. Sure, it's not a classic on par with the best of Dostoyevsky, but it's nonetheless a contemplative cautionary tale about the dangers of fundamentalism and fascism, and about how the human soul has the capacity for both heinous evil as well as overwhelming compassion.