Reimagining Dostoyevsky’s Crime And Punishment in the north of the Philippines, Lav Diaz’s Norte, The End Of History is a stunning slowburner of epic proportions.
Breaking The Waves by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
It might be based on an original idea by producer Wacky O, but it’s hard to deny the influence of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s existential classic Crime And Punishment. Coming in at over four hours, not only is Lav Diaz’s film Norte, The End Of History just as epic in its structure, but its plot of a young drop-out (who in this case has very firmly turned his back on Law) with philosophical ideas above his station who murders a female pawnbroker and her relative (the only witness to his crime) and who gets away with it only to fall into an apoplexy of misery and despair, is so strikingly familiar, it’s kind of baffling that the Russian novelist doesn’t get a writing credit. But relocated to the northern province of Luzon in the Philippines, and with a parallel story of a husband wrongfully imprisoned and his wife scraping together a living selling vegetables to feed their two children, it’s almost like a sequel to Crime And Punishment, as we’re drawn into a couple’s universe of poverty and survival – the internal torments of a lone killer complemented by the daily struggles of a husband and wife in love and desperately trying to improve their lot. And although, in the end, the future remains just as bleak, it’s a very Russian kind of nihilism that Diaz brings to his breathtaking North.
Fabian (Sid Lucero) has dropped out of law school. He borrows money from his professors to pay the rent on his tiny digs while waxing philosophical about a zero society where nothing has any meaning. Joaquin (Archie Alemania) meanwhile is convalescing after breaking his leg, while his wife Eliza (Angeli Bayani of Ilo Ilo) is only able to keep the family afloat by selling the crockery and the pig they bought for their new restaurant business. When Eliza is also forced to pawn her ring to Magda (Mae Paner) for a pittance, Joaquin pays her an angry visit, threatening and nearly strangling her. But it’s when a frustrated Fabian reaches the end of his credit lines that she meets her untimely and violent death. Joaquin is promptly arrested for the murder, and while Fabian is wracked with guilt, Eliza moves with her sister-in-law and children to the coast where they can survive on sea snails and a meagre living as a vegetable hawker. When Joaquin is transferred, Eliza is no longer able to visit him. Four years go by, and yet somehow they’re still together.
Thanks to some stunning camerawork from Lauro Rene Manda, there’s a real sense of togetherness between Joaquin and Eliza in Norte, The End Of History, despite the distance that separates them, as an aerial camera climbs ethereally from sand dune to prison corridor, uniting them in a communion of souls and underscored by the repeated crashing of waves. It’s a magical poetry that culminates in a levitation sequence, Joaquin’s only reaction to the (then unknown) death of his wife in a bus accident. It’s uplifting (literally), but by no means a counterbalance to the dark sense of foreboding that pervades Diaz’s film – from the pulsating hum of traffic, to the fires the family repeatedly observe from the other side of the bay. This northern territory is beautiful, illuminated by an alternately pink, blue, violet light, but it’s also a place of violence – cold and terrifyingly arbitrary.
For this is the place where Fabian meets his own End of History, killing all ties by raping his sister and even stabbing his pet dog Yuma to death. It’s where Eliza, the film’s moral touchstone and struggling innocent, meets her maker in a senseless road accident, but it’s also the place where the Filipino despot Ferdinand Marcos came to power, and where his family still rule. And in fact, it’s only through this lens that the title of Diaz’s film makes sense – through Marcos’ association with the north and where, through his dictatorship, he brought an end to Filipino history. And Fabian, skulking around with his menacing violent streak and his desperate confusion between corrupted ideals and greedy egotism make him a terrifying example of the Filipino elite – a man in power in waiting.
With extremely long sequences filmed by an often static camera, Norte, The End Of Violence is masterfully controlled. Like the opening scene, interrupted by violence when a woman is shot on the street, some of the action is elided, Diaz choosing instead to let the strong performances from his principle cast do the talking. And it’s a measured pace that not only forces the viewer to take part in piecing the action together, but also allows us, over time, to read the thoughts behind the gazes that go beyond the frame. It’s brooding, beautiful and intelligent, and if its opening scene of verbose café-bar philosophy or its runtime may seem off-putting, fear not – Lav Diaz’s Norte, The End Of History is an engrossing and enriching insight into lives lived on the margins. It might be bleak, but it’s a sobering warning of epic proportions.
Norte, The End Of History is released on 18th July 2014 in the UK