Prior to the release of Norte, the End of History, Lav Diaz occupied a rather strange position in world cinema today. His films were, by dint of their length more than anything, seen comparatively less than almost any other major working director.1 By the same token, those brave enough to tackle his films heaped them with enough praise and enough of a critical consensus to assure that he did in fact enjoy the status of being a major director in spite of this relative lack of visibility.
With the release of Norte, this position of unseen/unjustly unheralded master auteur was slightly compromised. For one, it was his first film to play at Cannes, arguably on account of its comparatively more conventional runtime (clocking in at just over 4 hours).2 It was also the first of his films that somewhat divided the international press, far from the near-unanimous praise his work had received in the past.3 After recently receiving the much-vaunted Golden Leopard at Locarno for his newest film, From What Is Before, Diaz’s work is sure to attract even more critical attention and produce the kinds of divisive responses that inevitably come with this exposure. I went into Norte with these thoughts about critical reception and the artist’s relationship to the public bouncing around in my head.
Norte takes place in the northern Filipino region of Ilocos Norte, from which the film partially takes its title. The film’s protagonist, Fabian (played by Sid Lucero), is a bright, talented law student, deeply critical of the government and eager to see some kind of revolutionary change sweep away the corruption and inaction of the ruling class. He is in debt to a local moneylender, as is Joaquin (Archie Alemania), a hardworking and almost saintly husband and father of two who has been forced into economic trouble by an injury. Fabian sees an opportunity to put his theories of social justice into practice by taking vengeance on the moneylender, brutally murdering her and her young daughter (who witnesses the killing) and stealing her money. When the police make their investigation, Joaquin is convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in prison. Fabian is left to deal with his conscience, as we see the tragic effects of this unjust conviction on Joaquin’s family.4
A month back, I wrote in our 4:3 MIFF Staff Picks article about my enthusiasm for Lav Diaz’s Norte on the basis of two elements: its novelistic ambitions (particularly the director’s continued engagement with Dostoevsky) as well as its formal ambition (the pre-occupation with duration, both in the film’s runtime and its formal composition). In this regard, I got what I expected from Norte. The film is shot through with the Nietzschean philosophical quandaries of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment – not to mention several key plot points – with a similarly detailed focus on the psychology and the moral consequences of this secularist worldview. It is equally wholly in line with Diaz’s aesthetic approach, with an emphasis on the long take and the divergent narrative threads that occur within it.
I do have reservations about Norte, however, largely to do with the interaction of these two elements (the detailed psychological narrative and the film’s formal rigour), or rather their lack of interaction with one another. The film is quite heavy on dramatic action, driven by a psychological battle raging within the protagonist. It falls into that category of a cinema of Central Conflict Theory, as theorised by Raúl Ruiz in his Poetics of Cinema. That is to say that all the elements of the story are arranged around the fact that, in Ruiz’s words, “someone wants something and someone else doesn’t want them to have it.” In Norte, we might conceive of that “something” in more abstract terms – rather than just money, our protagonist wants, say, the realisation of a personal vision of just society. Everything we see in the film stems from the consequences of his actions in trying to achieve this through murder. Diaz’s contemplative, patient style is far less suited to this kind of sustained conflict-driven drama, which offers little respite and less of the experimentation with duration as a felt entity that is present in some of his previous work, such as Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012). The meeting of the 19th century novel and the modernist cinema of duration in Norte, as Guido Pellegrini has described it, doesn’t quite play to the strengths of either traditions.
Despite this, Norte is a fine film, and a unique experience amongst the current spate of festival films. Its greatest strength is its broad narrative scope, a politically-charged melding of the inner psychological world of its protagonist with the existing socio-economic forces that provoke action. In a telling departure from Dostoevsky’s novel,5 the introduction of Joaquin as a character who takes the blame for Fabian’s crime does more than just compound the protagonist’s guilt. It makes a point of highlighting the economic consequences and effects stemming from Fabian’s crime, not just the iniquities that provoked it. It’s indicative of a desire to place Dostoevsky’s metaphysical ruminations on morality and God within a (present) material historical context, and as an adaptation, it’s one of the more successful in recent memory.
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