Filipino auteur Lav Diaz isn’t one for brevity. His brand of cinema – which rivals in length and protraction to that of Hungarian maestro Béla Tarr – requires colossal patience, endurance and a certain cinephilic dedication usually reserved for hardcore arthouse film marathons. Over the last few years, his previous artistically liberated offerings Melancholia (2008), Death in the Land of Encantos (2007) and Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004) each clock in at no less than eight hours – so his latest masterful, existential four-hour epic Norte, The End of History might sound too long and daunting to anyone with the attention span of an average homo sapien, but is mercifully short even in Lav Diaz’s standards. Time and length are not the director’s prime concerns, fiercely refusing to adhere to our general concept of cinema and using his camera as a physical observer of the quiet hum and rhythm of life and human existence that would make Terrence Malick’s filmmaking style look breathlessly rushed.
But that isn’t to say Norte is an unforgivingly slow trawl through 250 minutes of static shots and long takes commonly deployed by this filmmaker. Quite the contrary. Yes, Diaz lets his camera linger too long in some occasions, but even those near-silent longueurs carry so much thematic weight. The sight of a mother quietly walking through pastoral fields with her two children and slowly ascending on top of a cliff has so much dramatic tension without ever evoking words. A man stands outside his house, contemplating the moral transgression he’s about to commit, is observed at a long shot and conveys barely any camera movement but the philosophical quandary is so magnetically felt, you’ll be left shaken with the scene that comes next. Diaz employs almost a muted approach all throughout, bar for a few intellectually discursive moments between college pals and quotidian village dialogue, that any emotional display feels like an act of catharsis.
It’s no secret that Diaz takes Dostoevsky’s behemoth Russian classic Crime and Punishment as a reference point, reworking the tome into his own slow-burn narrative and unflinching aesthetic, chronicling a man’s descent into moral and philosophical turmoil, as well as hypocrisy. From first scene to last, Norte charts this enthralling odyssey with startling honesty and an almost brutal awareness – densely navigating through the Big Themes such as human morality, constitutional law, corrupted justice, religion, existentialism and the Philippine political system with unpretentious, vivid and clear-eyed fury. There are tour-de-force conversation pieces between our law school drop-out protagonist (or shall we say antagonist) Fabian and his former college contemparies, decrying the death of justice, truth and meaning, immediately pulling us into the film’s central philosophical quandary. The nation’s budding non-conformist and perhaps most intellectually inclined becomes the self-perpetuating hypocrite who begrudges an unjust system and yet does nothing but poised to commit the exact same acts he so valiantly criticise. This is a man who is genuinely convinced that the only solution to a corrupt system is to eradicate those that pollute it – hence, in his mind, an act of murder is justified. What is one murder (or two) compared to the ruthless killings instigated by colonial usurpers and dictators? Diaz doesn’t soft-pedal the character of Fabian (intensely portrayed by actor Sid Lucero), foregoing sympathy from the audience, dismantling his humanity that halfway through the film, he resembles less of a man and more like a distraught animal, but is never reduced as a monodimensional figure but rather a deeply, profoundly conflicted being.
On the other side of the narrative, Diaz depicts the consequences of Fabian’s offense, an innocent family man Joaquin gets the blame and jailed, and as a direct result, his struggling, vegetable-peddler wife (Diaz veteran Angeli Bayani at her most heartbreaking) is brought down to her knees. This is where Norte gets metaphorical – this family becomes a symbol to a nation’s socio-economic strife, the uneducated, vulnerable underclass becomes the recipient of upper society’s ills. I defy you not to watch Bayani – her face a spectacle of despair, grief, anger, stoicism and profound sadness as she watches her husband being taken to prison – and not feel the core of your aorta being wrenched out of your ribs. This is the unforgettable face that burns in Norte, and Diaz’s camera stare at it mercilessly – a woman brought up in fathomless hardship becomes the sole sufferer of injustice perpetuated by those who should know and act better.