by Matt Levine
Over the last decade, the Filipino film industry has quietly been producing some of the most unique movies on the planet. (I urge you to see the ravishing melodrama The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveiros in particular.) One of the highlights of the Philippines’ cinematic output—especially among its semi-experimental, independent vein, which flourished after the waning of the country’s commercial industry—has been the director Lav Diaz, whose 23 films have unfortunately received scant distribution in the US. That changes slightly with Norte, the End of History, Diaz’s 250-minute opus inspired by Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. One of the director’s few films shot in color, with a four-hour-plus running time that’s actually modest by Diaz’s standards (his 2008 film Melancholia lasts nearly eight hours), Norte, the End of History strives to do no less than place a philosophical debate about free will and moral guilt in the context of modern Philippines’ stratified class system. In other words, it’s as thematically fascinating as it is socially pertinent (not to mention visually astonishing), an achievement that embraces the complexity and insight of Dostoevsky while becoming distinctly its own creature.
Director: Lav Diaz
Producer: Raymond Lee
Writers: Lav Diaz, Rody Vera
Cinematographer: Lauro Rene Manda
Editor: Lav Diaz
Music: Perry Dizon
Cast: Sid Lucero, Angeli Bayani, Archie Alemania, Soliman Cruz, Miles Canapi, Hazel Orencio
Premiere: April 6, 2013 – Hong Kong Film Festival
US Distributor: The Cinema Guild
Our Raskolnikov here is a pompous law-school dropout named Fabian (Sid Lucero), whom we first meet in a stylish café discussing ethics and politics with his academic friends. “It’s the end of politics” is the first line of the movie; Fabian will go on to proclaim that we’re also experiencing the death of truth and meaning, in a modern state in which the government can posit its own lies as an official history. In such a world, Fabian ominously proposes, the freedom of the individual is all that matters. Of course, the pontificating Fabian also alleges that the state should execute all unseemly members of society, so his political philosophy is muddled at best and delusively violent at worst.
Fear not: the entire movie does not consist of long-winded (albeit thought-provoking) discussions of Filipino politics and the state of ethics in the modern world. Although we are asked to observe numerous such conversations between Fabian and his friends (especially in the first hour of the movie), each interaction is an indelible portrayal of various social and educational strata in Filipino life. We get an overwhelming sense of character from these interactions (especially in regards to Fabian), and the actors should be commended for lending such philosophical debates a glimmer of humor and realism. The frequent allusions to Filipino figures such as Ferdinand Marcos (dictatorial president of the country from 1965 to 1986) and Ninoy Aquino (a senator who fiercely opposed Marcos and was assassinated in 1983) may be lost on many viewers, but the film nonetheless conveys its theme that the foolhardy, power-hungry decisions made by politicians can have devastating repercussions on their citizens. This is also a perfect example of Diaz (who also wrote the screenplay with Rody Vera) embracing the spirit of Dostoevsky without merely imitating him: Dostoevsky is well-known for interspersing news stories and public scandals into his characters’ everyday conversations, a social awareness epitomized by Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov.
Like Raskolnikov, Fabian pushes his post-ethical nihilism to its furthest degree: he impetuously murders an obese businesswoman named Magda (to whom he owes money, significantly), and is forced to butcher the woman’s daughter when she witnesses the crime. Diaz refrains from depicting these murders onscreen, but that’s not to say he lets us off the hook: we hear every brutal sound effect as they take place just beyond half-closed doors or behind walls, and the look of power and terror and guilt on Fabian’s bloodstained face is arguably more disturbing than a visualization of the murders would have been. Shortly after the murders take place, Diaz conveys Fabian’s debilitating guilt (and mounting bloodlust) through a hauntingly gorgeous shot: Fabian bolts upright in bed, waking from a nightmare, with a single ray of moonlight illuminating his face (and a painting of a dog’s snout on the wall behind him). It’s hard to describe exactly why this shot is so powerful, but it conveys a multitude of cataclysmic emotions without a single line of dialogue.
Fabian totally avoids persecution for his crime; it is instead a decent family man named Joaquin (Archie Alemania) who takes the fall, sentenced to life in prison for the double homicide. Joaquin had been seen earlier arguing with Magda, unsurprisingly due to financial reasons: his impoverished family, which had lost everything in a failed attempt to start a restaurant, is disastrously in debt to her. Joaquin’s incarceration leaves behind his wife Eliza (Angeli Bayani) and two young children, who are forced to survive on the little money Eliza earns from her vegetable cart. The second half of the film shuttles back and forth between Fabian’s unsettling descent into carnage and the hardships undergone by Joaquin’s family; it’s admittedly a simplistic duality, with the privileged, overeducated Fabian contrasted with the saintly, salt-of-the-earth Joaquin. The obviousness of this theme is forgivable, though, if we read Norte, the End of History as a metaphoric story about the forces of good, evil, guilt, and forgiveness—Fabian’s doomsday theories about the awfulness of man are decidedly subverted by Joaquin’s innate (and somewhat unconvincing) goodness. Such a twist of fate also places Fabian, inadvertently, in the same position as the despots he decries: a powerful manipulator of destiny and history, whose actions damn the lives of people less fortunate than he is. If Joaquin had taken an opportunity to study abroad as Fabian’s parents did, perhaps his life and Eliza’s would have taken a different turn—though people shouldn’t be forced to uproot themselves and their family simply for the sake of financial well-being. The second-half balance between Fabian's and Joaquin's storylines is where Norte, the End of History departs from Dostoevsky: while the novel devotes its latter half to Detective Petrovich’s investigation, Diaz decides instead to emphasize the social and economic implications of the story.
There is little hope and almost no joy in Diaz’s conception of the world. As Fabian continues to wander the country, increasingly wracked by guilt and self-loathing, he devolves further into violence and taboo. The film never gratuitously indulges his brutality, but the atrocities he commits are unshakeable nonetheless. Though there’s no dialogue “explaining” Fabian’s descent, leaving the audience to pose its own hypotheses, we might remember his dialogues earlier in the film and assume that he doesn’t want to live in a world that would allow him to kill and destroy so uninhibitedly; he’s too narcissistic to confess to the police, but he also acts out in increasingly vicious ways in hopes of annihilating himself. He encourages his law-school friends to reopen Joaquin’s case, but there’s no indication that Joaquin will be exonerated or released at any point. Another death late in the film, the result of mere twisted coincidence, further destroys a family that’s already in danger of imploding, thus sealing the characters' dark fates. In Norte’s view, people are constantly victimized by either social constraints or an innate psychological longing to subjugate others; it requires a nearly superhuman effort (such as Joaquin’s) to overcome such darkness. Not an uplifting movie, in other words, although there is enough complexity, emotion, and contemplation to warrant such a dismal worldview.
That being said, given its 250 minutes, there are undoubtedly moments of solace, humor, and emotion amid the dreariness. One of the most breathtaking shots (and there are many) follows Eliza as she trudges with her vegetable cart down a seaside boardwalk; her children are laughing and playing with their aunt, Ading (Hazel Orencio), while the sun sets over the ocean in the background. This lengthy, tranquil scene conveys an image of familial happiness and siblings’ love in a simple but effective way. Similarly, after Joaquin is imprisoned, there’s a scene in which one of his fellow prisoners plays a serene melody on his guitar while his cellmates listen, enraptured by the music—a glimmer of hope and beauty in an unlikely place. Diaz is also willing to embrace moments of dark humor, as when another prison inmate emotionlessly distributes gifts during Christmas while coldly singing “O Holy Night.” Its humor is bitter and its more hopeful interludes are mere respites from the bleakness, but the film's fleeting levity makes its emotional impact that much more devastating.
If Norte, the End of History is thematically and emotionally compelling, it is also visually overwhelming, a work of true cinematic beauty. Utilizing very lengthy, graceful tracking shots which move at an almost imperceptibly slow pace, Diaz and his cinematographer Lauro Rene Manda—like similarly austere stylists such as Béla Tarr and Andrei Tarkovsky—linger on the visual splendor of these scenes, creating a magisterial aesthetic that resembles paintings in motion. The Filipino landscape lends great beauty and uniqueness to many of these shots, while the omniscient, ghostly viewpoint brings to mind a godlike figure both dismayed and absorbed by the folly of humanity. A series of airborne shots—seemingly achieved by strapping a digital camera to a bird, leading to some of the most gorgeous cinematic imagery in years—is only the most overt example of the film’s visceral power. Even if the movie’s pace threatens to become daunting, yet another jaw-dropping shot will captivate you all over again, making the film’s extended running time not only manageable but engrossing.
Put simply, Norte, the End of History is a visual, conceptual, and emotional triumph, a grand and ambitious dissection of what it means to be human in the modern world. If a bleak, four-hour-plus existentialist treatise from the Philippines sounds like the kind of thing hardcore film buffs brag about enduring, nothing could be further from the truth: such scope and intensity of detail is necessary to bring Diaz’s overwhelming vision to life. Throughout his 15-year career, Diaz has always cited Dostoevsky as an influence, though this is the first time the director has adapted the novelist semi-explicitly. What’s amazing about Norte, the End of History is that it arguably outmatches Dostoevsky’s social commentary and moral complexity, or at least makes it distinctly modern and Filipino. Years from now, Norte, the End of History might adopt a position of cinematic significance as lofty as Crime and Punishment in the world of literature.