NORTE: THE END OF HISTORY (Norte, hangganan ng kasaysayan) B+
Philippines (250 mi) 2014 ‘Scope d: Lav Diaz
The title and 4-hour length of the film makes one presume this will be a long, drawn-out historical drama, but instead it closely follows the lives of a few people in a meticulously detailed, novelesque approach, becoming an intimate character study loosely based upon Raskolnikov from Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, while also covertly paralleling the political influence of former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. This director has a history of making films with extended length, where seven of his earlier films since 2001 are over five-hours in length, with three of them pushing the nine-hour mark. Suffice it to say, the director is also his own film editor, which may explain his apparent unwillingness to part with anything he’s shot, but length creates a more relaxed, slower-paced cinematic approach where the director has the freedom to play with the material, to tinker or experiment with his storytelling techniques. What might be surprising is how few characters are featured throughout, spending the majority of the film on just three of them, the most prominent of which is Fabian (Sid Lucero), a disillusioned young law student that drops out, despite being at the head of his class, disenchanted with the nation and its failings, considering himself above the law and any existing morality, where we see him in discussions with two former classmates who remain in awe of his views, particularly his criticism of the establishment, where his results-oriented idea of decisive action is killing the perpetrators responsible for all social ills, simply eliminating them from society, thus cleansing the entire nation of its dead weight. In Fabian’s eyes, Marcos got it right under a brutal dictatorship (1965 – 1986), but failed because eventually he got too soft, caving in to various special interests. While it’s easy to theorize and develop a nihilist view, spouting Nietzschean philosophy to justify why one prefers anarchism to the prevailing order, in the Philippines the current system has produced little else but widescale governmental corruption and greed. While Fabian may pontificate at length on “the destruction of anything that is inimical to morality,” he’s seen more as a loud-mouthed provocateur who enjoys being at the center of attention, especially after having a few beers, while later seen agonizing over his alleged moral conflict by sleeping with his best friend’s girlfriend. True to form, as if feeding his own vanity, he gets this off his chest in the most obnoxious means possible, revealing the affair in a drunken outburst embarrassing both the girl and her boyfriend, making him something of a detestable lout.
While the initial discussions are between the young urban elite, there is a parallel story providing a view of the dispossessed, featuring an impoverished family where the husband Joaquin (Archie Alemania) breaks his leg in an accident, preventing he and his wife Eliza, Angeli Bayani from Ron Morales’s Graceland (2012) and Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo (Ba Ma Bu Zai Jia) (2013), from being able to start up a food cantina, where instead they are drowning in debt just trying to get the business started. He’s forced to peddle bootleg DVD’s on the street while supporting two young kids and Eliza’s sister. The class distinction couldn’t be more pronounced between their near destitute status, where they’re forced to pawn everything they own, and the supreme arrogance and haughty contempt on display by the wealthy pawnbroker, Magda (Mae Paner, a theater actress and political advocate), who acts like she’s doing them a favor taking these worthless items off their hands, including Eliza’s most prized piece of jewelry. Shortly afterwards, Joaquin revisits Magda demanding she give the jewelry back, realizing it’s value to his wife, going so far as to start choking her when she refuses, but stops himself once he realizes what he’s doing. As the police are called, he’s forced to flee, working a construction job pouring cement in a neighboring town, hiding out in the partially constructed home, seen alone on the second floor looking out over the vastness of the empty fields nearby, where the viewer can all but see him falling into his own moral abyss. Fabian has also accumulated considerable debt with Magda, as she is keeping one of his credit cards. He witnesses the distraught Eliza weeping uncontrollably on the street, not knowing how her family will survive, where out of the blue he generously gives her what money he has. Some time later, he’s seen paying a visit to Magda one evening in her massive home, claiming he’s there to pay off his debt, but instead he brutally stabs her to death, along with the only witness to the crime, her teenage daughter, quickly burying the money, packing his bags and moving into the heart of Manila where he is essentially an exile, living in a self-imposed existential prison, shown with iron bars on the windows, eventually blotting out all light in the apartment in a gesture reminiscent of the final scene of Béla Tarr’s SÁTÁNTANGÓ (1994).
The Norte of the title refers to the Philippines’ rich northern province of Ilocos Norte made famous by capitalist clans and political dynasties that perpetuate a culture of social stagnation in the region, making a point of filming the movie in Ferdinand Marcos’s hometown of Paoay, where despite his downfall is still treated like a national hero. Like Fabian, Marcos was a brilliant law student who also committed murder when he was younger. Marcos was tried and convicted in 1938 before successfully arguing his own appeal, winning his acquittal in 1940 while studying for his Philippine Bar Exams, where he achieved the highest score. Fabian acknowledges a certain admiration for Marcos, claiming he was on the right track when trying to eradicate communism, but eventually got distracted later in his career. While Fabian is nowhere as smart or as brutally ruthless as Marcos, who like Stalin before him maintained his rule by silencing and eliminating his opposition, but may be a by-product of his legacy, where this film focuses upon the Raskolnikov-style murder and its effects, where Fabian finally acts upon his own beliefs, murdering a malignant element of society as if it was his moral imperative. His actions, however, change nothing in the “new” social order, where instead he is besieged by grief. Diaz interestingly does not follow the guilty mindset of the criminal, but leaves the predicament of Fabian behind and concentrates instead on the real victims of his crime, Joaquin, who is unjustly charged with the murders and sentenced to life in prison in a seemingly open and shut case, as he was earlier seen making threats to the pawnbroker, where he is imprisoned too far away for Eliza to visit, creating a broken family torn apart by the crime that must fend for itself, as Eliza gets up at the crack of dawn to sell vegetables on the street, barely eking out a living. Returning to color for the first time since BATANG WEST SIDE (2001), a director who traditionally shoots in black and white, the pace of the film is established using long, langorous, often wordless shots by cinematographer Lauro Rene Manda, allowing the audience to familiarize themselves with the emotional interior of each character, where the director eschews the use of music throughout. There is plentiful use of aerial shots contrasting the pastoral elegance and beauty of large plantations with the more squalid beach shanties that are little more than a series of huts strewn together, much like the multitude of fishing boats hugging the shore. Still, there are moments of rapturous beauty, such as a scene of dawn rising over the seaside village.
It’s interesting that the film sustains its momentum throughout, becoming a more ponderous experience, where there are heartbreaking moments, especially expressed by the unusual grace and transcendence of actress Angeli Bayani, who Taiwanese director Ang Lee called a “national treasure” (Ang Lee calls 'Ilo Ilo' star Angeli Bayani a 'national treasure ...) while awarding her the Filipino Gawad Urian Best Actress award, who is seen on the verge of suicide at one point, bringing her children to the edge of a perilous cliff, while utilizing an effective change of pace through a continuing stream of black and white dream images coming from Joaquin’s cell, as he continually retains a subconscious connection to his hometown roots despite his displacement. While he is forced to suffer the inevitable indignities foisted upon him in prison, he fends off evil with benevolence, where both Joaquin and Eliza are depicted as saints, which couldn’t be a greater contrast than Fabian, the man who gets away with murder. By separately exploring the lives of Joaquin and Fabian, Diaz exposes a glaring gap that separates the economic classes, where the poor are often forced to suffer for the crimes of the wealthy, which serves as a metaphor for Philippine society, which is ruled by a wealthy aristocracy, where power is retained in the hands of a few, that all but ignores the plight of the majority working class. While the film is an impressive achievement, it is not without faults, where the long, sustained build-up is better than the eventual climax. The film sputters with the introduction of a new character late in the film, Fabian’s sister Hoda (Miles Canapi), who embodies an upper class emotional distance and detachment from the real world, living in a self-induced bubble of cheerful religious cliché, protected by the enormity of her inherited estate, including an immense plantation mansion where she lives alone, inviting Fabian to stay and help her farm the tobacco fields. It’s here we learn that Fabian is the product of extreme wealth and upper class arrogance, who often believe they are morally superior, yet staring him in the face is the misery he has inflicted on undeserving souls, leading to a breakdown of moral order. The film is highly rewarding until it resorts to the kind of needless Bruno Dumont brutality and faux spiritualism that we saw in HUMANITÉ (1999), where exaggerated distortions, including levitation sequences, replace hard-earned notions of intellect and social realism. Perhaps the most uniquely impressive visual cue is an unexplained catastrophe late in the film leaving dozens of people lying dead sprawled out over an extended region, shown in black and white where the camera pans over the massive space. While this mysteriously takes the life of one of the major characters, the source of the tragedy, whether it be a hurricane, an explosion, or toxic fumes in the air, is never revealed, left lingering in one’s imagination.