Film Review: ‘Norte, the End of History’

One of the key modern exponents of slow cinema – although his films do range in length from eight minutes up to eight hours – Filipino director Lav Diaz made his Cannes bow last year with Norte, the End of History (2013), a four-hour epic that rightly garnered comparisons with such Russian literary giants as Dostoevsky. Using an impulsive double homicide as its focal point, Diaz’s first colour outing draws together a group of disparate individuals on either side of the wealth divide, building an exquisite portrait of life in a country still bearing the deep psychological and physical scars of years of dictatorship rule. Languid yet always lucid, Norte is easily one of the highlights of this year’s world cinema slate.

Set in the northern Philippine province of Luzon, we’re introduced to law school dropout Fabian (Sid Lucero) debating the state of the nation – among loftier concepts – with two of his former tutors. Somewhat taken aback by his hardline ideologies, some of which border on the sociopathic (state-sanctioned murder being one), the warning signs are perhaps there when Fabian commits a horrific double murder, butchering a local money-lender and her daughter after getting into debt. It’s family man Joaquin (Archie Alemania) who takes the fall for the crime, however, having been witnessed throttling the deceased after a plea for leniency takes a sour turn. Racked with guilt, Fabian swiftly leaves town, only to return three years later with the intention of lessening the strain loaded onto the man’s wife.

That Fabian never once considers giving himself up to the authorities (“the end of truth”) is key to Diaz’s thesis – and unquestionably one of the key factors that has led to comparisons between the character and anti-hero Raskolnikov from Dostoevsky’s monumental Crime and Punishment. The warped product of a wealthy, bourgeois Filipino family, it’s Fabian corrupted and primal world-view – facilitated by his privileged education and upbringing – that leads him first to fracture his friendship group after a disastrous love affair and then to the cold-blooded murder of Mae Paner’s Magda. How different, Diaz’s protagonist questions beforehand, would killing another human being be when his nation is built upon the foundations of bloodshed (first Spanish then American rule, the rise to power of Emilio Aguinaldo etc)? Fabian’s methods of simplification are what render him inhuman, yet it’s his crippling guilt that makes him such a complex figure.

Meanwhile, Alemania’s hugely sympathetic Joaquin fulfils the flipside of the human dichotomy – a selfless, kindly husband and father who takes on his role as prisoner with saintly stoicism. An unprovoked altercation between himself and lock-up pitbull Wakwak (Soliman Cruz) culminates in a brutal stabbing, yet the victim comes to the aggressor’s aid, even nursing him back to health, after he befalls what appears to be a stroke in the prison grounds. Diaz goes to great lengths to hold religion at an arm’s length – Fabian attends a Christian support group, rural cults are referred to but never depicted – but it’s hard not to place greater symbolism upon Joaquin’s astounding benevolence. As with many of Diaz’s past works, Norte, the End of History offers no easy answers nor happy endings. Instead, we’re deftly (and sensually) immersed in the lives of these desperate souls, where contentment – let alone justice – is a luxury few can afford.

Daniel Green