Directed by: Lav Diaz.
Written by: Rody Vera & Lav Diaz & Michiko Yamamoto & Raymond Lee.
Starring: Sid Lucero (Fabian), Archie Alemania (Joaquin), Angeli Bayani (Eliza), Angelina Kanapi (Hoda), Mae Paner (Magda), Soliman Cruz (Wakwak), Hazel Orencio (Ading), Ian Lomongo (Cesar), Kristian Chua (Peryong), Noel Sto. Domingo (Salvador), Perry Dizon (Prof. Perry), Raymond Lee (Prof. Moira), Sheen Gener (Gina), Dea Formacil (Angela), Kristine Kintana (Tating), Lex Marcos (Kiko), Luis Galang III (Ferdie).
I have been reading about Filipino director Lav Diaz, in magazines like Cinemascope and Film Comment, for years now – but I have never had a chance to see any of his films until Norte, the End of History. Diaz makes precisely the films he wants to make, and doesn’t really care about commercial appeal. The previous film of his I had heard the most about was Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004), which clocked in at 9 hours. By comparison, Norte, the End of History’s 4 hour and 10 minute runtime is positively svelte. The film is a classic example of “slow cinema” – a film that takes its time in its every scene, most of which take place in a single shot with either no camera movement, or very slow camera movement (because the camera doesn’t move very much, you notice when it does here – and it always moves with a purpose). It is inspired by Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment – like that novel, the film centers on a murder, and its aftermath – with its main character, Fabian (Sid Lucero) spouting off about history and corruption in an attempt to justify his behavior. But unlike the main character in Crime and Punishment, Fabian is never even suspected of the crime he has committed – and while he does experience some guilt over what he has done, it doesn’t change his behavior by the end of the film. There are no consequences for him.
The crime is question is a brutal double murder that Fabian commits, more than an hour into its runtime. Up until that time, we basically see Fabian sit with his former law professors or fellow students (he has dropped out of school, with only a year to go) talking philosophy and history – and the need to eliminate anything that is corrupt is the Philippines is going to move forward. His friends seem to share some of his revolutionary ideas – but none of them want to actually take any action to make the revolution a reality. The irony is that when Fabian finally does take action – it isn’t to better anything in the Philippines, it’s to advance his own cause. He is in debt to an obsessed, vulgar loan shark, Magda, and brutally stabs her. When her sweet teenage daughter walks in on him, he doesn’t hesitate to kill her as well. He then walks away scot free – moves to another town, tries to find religion, and feels guilt – not enough to turn himself in, but some.
The murder is instead pinned on Joaquin (Archie Alemania), a poor man recovering from a leg injury, who also went deep into debt with Magda. When he realizes his wife Eliza (Angeli Bayani) has pawned her wedding ring to Magda, he tries to get it back – and when Magda refuses, he attacks her – before he also flees. Unluckily for him, it is that night that Fabian kills Magda – and since some people witnessed his attack on her, he is arrested and quickly convicted. While the first and fourth hours concentrates mainly on Fabian, much of the middle two focus on Joaquin’s brutal prison experience – which he handles with the patience of a saint – and his wife’s struggle to support their two children, working the lowliest jobs imaginable (which she also handles in saint like fashion).
This is a fully confident film by Diaz – who isn’t afraid to hold his shots long after most people would have cut away, and isn’t afraid to let long passages go with little to no dialogue. He uses space masterfully – the framing is precise, and when he moves the camera, it’s purposeful. He keeps the violence in the movie mostly often screen – the murder, two rapes and a horrific accident do not take place on screen (the accident isn’t even seen at all, unlike the murder and rapes, which happen just off-screen, so we hear much more than we see). The film is an examination of morality, religion, class (we learn, late in the game, that Fabian comes from a wealthy family) – and Diaz is fascinated with both absolute good and absolute evil.
In some ways, however, that exploration of absolute good and evil hurts the films a little when as the film moves along. In the first hour, perhaps two, it seems like both Fabian and Joaquin, are really complex characters – characters who contain both good and bad in them (Eliza is, sadly, a martyr from the beginning). But as the film moves along, Fabian and Joaquin become much less complex – Fabian moves a little towards redemption, before forever shutting the door on that path, while Joaquin keeps getting more and more saint like – leading to an art house cliché of transcendence.
Yet, Norte, the End of the History is still a near-great movie – masterfully well directed and shot, well-acted and always fascinating. After hearing about Lav Diaz for years, I am very glad I finally got a chance to see for myself just how good a director he is. Here’s hoping that it doesn’t take that long before another of his films becomes available for us to see.