Norte, The End of History

Norte, The End of History is the new short film by Lav Diaz—OK, that’s the facile joke out of the way. Yes, at four hours, Norte qualifies as one of the Filipino director’s shorter features—a mere divertissement compared to the nine-hour Heremias: Book One (06) or the ten-and-a-half-hour Evolution of a Filipino Family (04). But it’s also true that Norte doesn’t feel long in the least: with its narrative economy, clarity, and gently purposeful forward drive, the film is as streamlined and as watchable as any contemporary mainstream narrative, if not more so. At the risk of repeating a weary truism about the relativity of film time, Norte feels a lot shorter than the arduous grind of many an artificially busy Hollywood production.

In any case, length alone is not necessarily these films’ defining element. What’s distinctive is the way that Diaz balances design and contingency, so that a film’s duration emerges from the play of these elements. If I remember correctly Diaz’s description of his methods when he came to Britain two years ago to the AV Festival in Tyneside, his films are unusually open to chance: if characters come and go as though following their own unpredictable will, sometimes disappearing abruptly from the action, it’s often because an actor will drop out unexpectedly in mid-shoot (and these shoots can be both fragmentary and very extended) and the film will have to accommodate that. What’s more, Diaz has a cavalier attitude to scripts: Norte, for example, began with a structured script (it’s credited to the director and Rody Vera) but Diaz would write new material before each day’s shooting.

All this relates to duration insofar as each film to a great extent narrates its own coming into being; watching one from start to finish is akin to participating in its creation. It’s not for nothing that Diaz has, albeit partly in jest, dubbed his viewers as “warriors”: not just because they’ve achieved feats of endurance, but because the very nature of his films implies comradeship, sharing a venture outside the common domain of cinema (a typical Diaz character is the guerrilla or social outsider seen hacking through dense countryside).

Norte, The End of History

Norte, however, is something of a departure for Diaz, even though it’s immediately recognizable as his work. It’s his first color feature, shot this time not by Diaz himself but by Larry Manda. And it’s a much more structured and condensed piece than, say, the leisurely zigzagging of Melancholia (09). The narrative takes some surprising detours, but is essentially very simple and is built on a set of basic oppositions: rich/poor, good/evil, crime/punishment. In fact, it’s essentially Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, except that it imagines what would happen if some long-suffering innocent took the rap for Raskolnikov.

The film starts with a five-minute fixed shot, a café scene in which a group of urban intellectuals sit talking, half seriously, half facetiously, about philosophy, history, and law. The Raskolnikov figure is the reportedly brilliant young Fabian (Sid Lucero); to the dismay of his peers and his former teachers, he has abandoned the studies that apparently destined him for the sort of law career that might have shone a redeeming light on the murk of Filipino public life. But the jaded Fabian is hung up on a set of ideas that, depending on how he phrases them, resemble disillusioned idealism, end-of-all-meaning nihilism, and mere slick sophistry: he may claim to be committed to “a new kind of understanding… beyond everything,” but the line that ultimately emerges is brutally reactionary, a belief in the self-elected brightest and best arrogating the right to identify and eliminate the bad elements in society.

We may think at first that Fabian is simply a poseur, addicted to the rush of his own rhetoric. But he emerges as a pretty creepy figure: claiming that he feels bad about having an affair with his college pal’s girlfriend, then displaying his “honesty” by humiliating her in public (at which point the guys all close ranks and say, hey, it’s water under the bridge). Deciding that the blight in society is embodied in a moneylender named Magda (a boisterous turn by Mae Paner), he kills her and her daughter (one on screen, the other off, in a grippingly staged shot) and makes off with a haul of pawned valuables.

Norte, The End of History

Meanwhile a poor couple named Joaquin (Archie Alemania) and Eliza (Angeli Bayani) have been struggling to support their children, and thanks to Magda, have had to abandon their dream of starting a food business. Joaquin gets the rap for Magda’s murder, and long sequences follow the couple as they cope with his imprisonment. Eliza sells vegetables and, with her sister, raises the children in an impoverished yet somewhat idyllic riverside setting. Meanwhile Joaquin—despite other prisoners’ attempt to strip him of his illusions—holds onto his dream of reunion with his family.

The film’s opposition of good and bad faith is problematic in that a character like Fabian is bound to be more interesting than Joaquin and Eliza, who represent an ideal of proletarian endurance that’s not so far from traditional icons of Christian suffering. Joaquin is beaten up by prison “daddy” Wakwak (Soliman Cruz), but no one can turn the other cheek quite like this gentle country boy, and before long Joaquin is tending to an ailing Wakwak, the former oppressor at last expiring with a gasped “Forgive me”—at Christmas, mark you. Joaquin and Eliza, who seem to have a psychic link while they’re apart—invoked by two aerial sequences connecting their separate locations—have little to characterize them except gentle tenacity. Fabian, on the other hand, is a figure of complex perversity, with a backstory emerging in the final stretch that establishes him as more comprehensively fucked up than we could have imagined.

Politically, then, it’s problematic that the working-class heroes are ciphers with little to say for themselves, while its moneyed villain is a creature of light and shade with more than enough to say, and very stylishly so. Yet in using such broad strokes, Diaz knows what he’s doing. The nature of the very basic opposition in Norte is true to both 19th-century narrative (the fevered complexity of Raskolnikov versus the schematic simplicity, or purity if you prefer, of “poor folk” like Sonya) and to older Christian narratives of redemption and martyrdom.

Norte, The End of History

But in any case, the film subverts its apparent commitment to Christian codes of patience and compassion. Running from his crime, Fabian meets a pleasant bunch of young people who turn out to be born-again Christians; at one of their meetings, he unburdens himself incoherently, before rushing out in a frenzy. And the character who is most densely wreathed in clouds of beatification comes a cropper in a shocking scene.

As I understand it, then, the wronged couple’s tenacity is less a Christian matter than something in the nature of a hard truth about Filipino history: the message is that the islands’ poor have always been screwed over and will have to tough it out until society changes radically. But for that to happen, the film suggests, the educated ruling class, people like Fabian and his law friends, will have to commit themselves to something more decisive than making blasé quips about how things have always gone wrong in the Philippines. It’s hard to get a grip on the film without a knowledge of the nation’s history, but early on the discussion in Fabian’s circle revolves around 19th-century events and the deaths of revolutionary heroes such as Andres Bonifacio. It’s also significant that the film is shot around the Northern province of Ilocos Norte, where the dictator Ferdinand Marcos was born, himself a one-time law student. Fabian’s café-society suavity and invocation of modish postmodern ideas shouldn’t blind us to the reality of his murderous potential.

This description may make you expect something schematic, but that’s far from the truth. What partly makes Norte so compelling is Diaz’s extraordinary mise en scène, and the way that he and DP Manda use the widescreen frame. The film is threaded through with visual metaphors of imprisonment. Fabian initially occupies a tiny apartment that he fancies as a chic embodiment of Japanese simplicity, but that is really the first of the cells he fashions for himself; later, when he blocks out his windows in anguish, even the blanket he puts up has a bar pattern. By contrast, there’s a strange spaciousness to the actual crowded cell that Joaquin occupies—it extends across the screen like a proscenium stage in a sequence that has a guitar-strumming prisoner offering a musical interlude, like a campfire song in a Western. Manda’s lighting sculpts these spaces beautifully, while little visual clues help build up a novelistic density. The photo of a pet dog in Fabian’s apartment tells us that he’s one of those sentimentalists who love animals but despise humans; hanging over his head after he’s killed Magda, the picture signals his bestial nature. And just when we’d forgotten about it, the dog returns in time for a startling conclusion.

Norte, The End of History

Also, just when we’d forgotten an early discussion about the device of the deus ex machina, Diaz throws in one of those, in a way that will have you grinding your teeth if you expected things to turn out neatly, but that lovers of enigmatic twists (à la Dumont, Reygadas, Apichatpong) will no doubt relish. So any thought of Diaz as a director who makes it all up as he goes along is comprehensively belied by a tightly structured narrative that, for all its length and languid pacing, contains very little dead time. It’s only in the third hour that we begin to experience the slowness of the new life that Joaquin and Eliza must endure apart (connoisseurs of still contemplativeness will love a four-minute take of Eliza and her sister sitting out at night musing on their future).

Shown in Cannes last year in Un Certain Regard, Norte was widely acclaimed as a highlight of the festival, a supposedly “impossible” (if not unwatchable) director thus being officially received into the realm of the possible. For some of Diaz’s committed warrior following, this—together with the film’s composed coherence and its full-color beauty—may well characterize Norte as a compromise, but really, you’d have to be as cranky an extremist as Fabian to see it that way. The film is a marvel of simplicity, depth, and deviousness too.