Norte, The End Of History (2013)

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The fifteenth feature from festival darling Lav Diaz, Norte, The End Of History is a film pregnant with anxiety for the future, its fraught dramatic diptych framing the lives of two men whose worlds intersect at an irrevocable crossroads. Diaz’s anxiety – for the economy, politics, education and family – is articulated through their experience, but the film’s daunting length (250 minutes) allows his commentary to creep into the foreground and become sediment. His ideas are not simply bullet-pointed, they are environmental and lived-in, inherent to a world which becomes more expansive and troubling over time.

Fabian (Sid Lucero) is a young intellectual, dissatisfied with the world around him but naive in his conviction of its inherent evil (“anti-existantialism, anti-God“, jokes a friend, reeling through his nascent nihilism with a touch of wit, “what’s left?”). He won’t back off from the topics even when lounging around in bars or on the coast, and his flurry of drastic actions eventuate, thanks to an unfortunate set of circumstances earlier that day, stark consequences for an innocent family man (Archie Alemania). His name is Joaquin, and from his prison cell the second part of Diaz’s slow but slippery narrative unfurls…

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Unfortunately, it’s his uneven plotting which makes Norte such a sporadically testing experience – individual sequences are breathtaking for their visual complexity and beauty (the opening long take, though basic in composition, is riveting), but he struggles to maintain a grasp on the forward thrust of his narrative, leaving an hour between interactions with characters whose stories lose traction thanks to the languorous pacing and extensive world-building. Soon the long-takes begin to feel long, increasingly lacking in detail and furthering an allegory which viewers unacquainted with Filipino history (myself included) will find alienating.

In this sense, Diaz’s sense of place, his careful cultivation of landscape and a fascination with its visual and emotional minutia, is a double-edged sword; responsible for commanding our attention for the film’s first two hours, they ultimately afford the director an indulgence to become lost in, and the violent about-face of its final thirty minutes seem to come from nowhere, a result of Fabian’s poorly structured arc, during which we spend extensive periods of time observing the deliberate crawl of daily life.

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This is by no means Diaz’s longest film – 2004’s Evolution Of A Filipino Family is 540 minutes, and was completed over eleven years – so his measurement of time is now precisely honed; asked which scene I would cut to better tell Norte’s story, I couldn’t honestly justify the ousting of any one, but rather the trimming of many. The slow zooms are perfectly framed, so beautiful and evocative (the penultimate shot belongs in a gallery – to my eye, it is the work of a master painter), but they linger on tableau for too long – in another of the film’s interior conflicts, they become detrimental to its wider story, yet of course are essential to grounding it in a world and making it so enthralling.

From the graceful naturalism of its nighttime exteriors to the gentle shading of its diegetic sound design, Norte is an aesthetic work to be treasured, and almost impossible to imagine working outside of a cinema, but its stodgy and uninvolved plotting across such an imposing timeframe makes it difficult to recommend. Miss a key line of dialogue and you’ll never discern that four years pass during Joaquin’s incarceration – his wife has one scene with a lawyer and then seems to resume life without him, and meanwhile his relationship with cell leader Wakwak (Soliman Cruz) appears to change from one scene to the next without any internal development, nulling the effect of their emotional denouement.

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A spell at Fabian’s sister’s house is indicative of how the film wanders from its beaten path – featuring an off-screen rape and animal mutilation, the sequence is meant to register as the culmination of his nihilism; believing his family’s bloodline to be a corrupt and worthless one, he sets out on a vengeful quest to erase his past history. The idea is fascinating (and obviously the most pure example of the film’s allegory), but it’s rooted in ideas that the director hasn’t acknowledged in hours, and none of the character’s actions – including his newfound empathy with the family of the man he wronged – register within the film’s reality.

By turns heartbreaking and exasperating, gorgeous and snooze-inducing, Norte, The End Of History is unlike anything else at the festival this year, and a singular cinematic experience. But be warned: you’ll need sobriety of mind and a pillow to get through it.

Director: Lav Diaz
Writers: Lav Diaz, Rody Vera
Stars: Archie Alemania, Angeli Bayani, Soliman Cruz
Runtime: 250 min
Country: Philippines

Film Rating: ★★★☆☆

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