Notebook: Norte, The End of History
1. The thematic ambition and complexity of Lav Diaz’s Norte, The End of History is simply astonishing. The comprehensive thematic orientation of the film is political: it examines how cumulative political catastrophes in recent Philippine history have created a society where the gap between rich and poor has created terrible suffering for the poor and moral corruption for the wealthy.
Diaz’s second thematic dimension is psychological: the narrative is organized to show how political and economic dislocations have invaded family life, which is itself made dysfunctional by the traumatic breaking up of families under economic pressure. Parental authority in families is shown as being constantly absent or in disrepair in Norte, to the endless detriment of all family members.
The third thematic dimension of Norte is spiritual. Almost every character in the film addresses the possibility of a spiritual response to the atmosphere of social/economic/familial crisis that envelops them. The film takes a remarkably varied, delicately ambivalent view of these modes of spiritual response, including everything from derisive satire of neuroses unsuccessfully masked by the spiritual, to a tentative embrace of it.
To attempt to seriously braid the political, the psychological, and the spiritual in a single narrative system! Who besides Ford, Mizoguchi, Dreyer, and Rossellini have successfully tried? (And not even their best attempts were flawless.) Norte is a work that deserves consideration in the same terms and contexts as the work of these masters.
2. One could write a small book in delineating the complex conversation that Diaz and his screenwriter are having in this film with Dostoevsky and the whole tradition of Russian realist fiction of the late 19th century. The source for a number of its scenes is Crime and Punishment, though Diaz at the press conference was quick to point out that the book was an “inspiration,” not something he was trying to adapt.
If you know Dostoevsky, you know that Norte’s depiction of Fabian’s relationship with his intellectual pals owes as much to The Possessed as to Crime and Punishment. Stavrogin is the intellectual who destroys those around him and never stops being shadowed by the demonic appeal of suicide. This is as true of Fabian as is his proximity to the model of Raskolnikov. And Joaquin, who evolves spiritually during his long imprisonment, spontaneously returning goodness for evil, has clear links to Myshkin in The Idiot.
Yet at the same time, in the character of Fabian’s moronic landowning sister Diaz inscribes a ruthlessly clever satire of one of Dostoevsky’s most dubious sentiments, shared to some extent by Tolstoy: that uprooted cosmopolitan intellectuals need to “go back to the land” and get in touch with the peasants and their innate spirituality. So while the film is, in certain ways, dedicated to Dostoevsky’s insights, it announces its independence from them at the same time.
3. Diaz has a visual-narrative style that is unique in its diversity and strangeness. A few of its characteristics: a fondness for filming in long master shots, varied by remarkably subtle reframing camera movements; a constant, brilliant evocation of off-screen space and how it affects us by disorienting our relation to the reality we are seeing and the narrative arcs we are following; the combination of skillful theatrical acting with work by others who seem to be scrupulously chosen nonprofessionals; and harsh contrasts between dialogue scenes of intellectual and psychological complexity, and scenes of wordless behavior. In many ways Diaz is fruitfully an über-traditional realist on the 19th-century model; in other ways his minimalism, austerity, and taste for allegory mark him as a stylized modernist, heir to Mizoguchi, Bresson, Fassbinder, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and Edward Yang.
4. I will hazard one more hypothesis about how to think about Diaz's style which I can only characterize as uncanny. Living in both the Philippines and New York City, Diaz is the first great filmmaker to be equally and decisively marked by the West and the East. The West gives him a taste for psychologism and very elaborate narrative construction. The East gives him the taste and talent for impassive allegorical mural-images that compress historical-political themes into single comprehensive images. The combination is not like anything you’ve ever seen before.
Norte, The End of History opens Friday at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and a special monthly retrospective of Lav Diaz's films begins on Sunday with Melancholia. This article was originally published online last September when Norte screened in the New York Film Festival. For more on Diaz, read “Dostoevsky Variations” by Noel Vera from the September/October 2013 issue.