PRINT April 2014


Lav Diaz’s Norte, the End of History

Lav Diaz, Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan (Norte, the End of History), 2013, HD video, color, sound, 250 minutes. Fabian Viduya (Sid Lucero).

LAV DIAZ turns the syllabic rigors of haiku into a kind of ars poetica in his latest epic, the portentously titled Norte, the End of History. “Five-seven-five, perfect!” Norte’s protagonist, Fabian Viduya, exclaims to his lover early in the four-hour film, admiring the “Japanese” precision of a poetic form that constrains an artist to such a sparse, unvarying structure. The compression and aesthetic impediment of haiku would seem inimical to Diaz, the most searching and philosophical director of the so-called Philippine New Wave, a movement that rivals the New Romanian Cinema as the past decade’s most important. Given to immense, digressive chronicles that address the legacy of the Philippines’ history of colonialism and dictatorship and often burgeon to extraordinary length—Diaz’s Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004) runs over ten hours—the director’s work appears to embody the immersive opposite of haiku’s exigency. However, abandoning many of his recent working methods—filming in color rather than black-and-white, relying more on a collaboratively written script than on improvisation, employing a commercial cinematographer rather than shooting the film himself—Diaz achieves great formal concentration and narrative density in Norte’s comparatively concise, proportioned structure. When the film won Diaz his first, long-denied berth at Cannes last year, some of the director’s partisans snarked that it was his most accessible and conventional work that had finally made the breakthrough. Lav-lite to his acolytes, Norte nonetheless provides ideal ingress for Diaz neophytes.

The film returns to the literary source of Diaz’s first feature, The Criminal of Barrio Concepcion (1998), and a frequent inspiration for his subsequent cinema: Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. (The novel also inspired a number of films one supposes Diaz admires, such as Aki Kaurismäki’s 1983 debut feature of the same name, Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket [1959], and Darezhan Omirbaev’s recent Student [2012].) Instilled with a love of Dostoyevsky and of the movies by his “cine-addict” and Russophile father on Mindanao, where Diaz spent his isolated childhood—“I lived in the woods with all the deadly mosquitoes, snakes, and crocodiles,” he jokes—the director has frequently imported incidents and themes from the Russian novelist into his own sprawling ruminations on sin, free will, and redemption. Norte focuses on Fabian, a good-looking young intellectual who has abandoned his law studies despite his standing as the brightest in his class, and whose disillusionment with his country and contemporary politics has curdled into nihilism, a rejection of society, family, and faith so utter that it increasingly isolates him from those who admire and want to help him. “Leave me alone,” he commands a little over an hour into the film; soon after, he insists, “I will face this alone.” Diaz emphasizes Fabian’s alienation in his precise group compositions, positioning him apart or aside from his friends and fellow law students. His Dostoyevskian cri de coeur—“Can I ever be forgiven?”—uttered amid a circle of evangelical Christians praying over his fate, seems a matter of waning concern to Fabian as he, like the tormented narrator in Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, attempts to “drown out the clamor” in himself and ends up “completely outside” society in self-imposed isolation. Fabian’s cell-like room in Manila, with its barred and shaded windows, suggests that his detachment has turned into incarceration.

“I need to borrow money, sirs!” Fabian announces to his tablemates in the film’s opening long, fixed take, in which philosophical debate about postmodernism and “the new twenty-first-century politics” finally founders on base financial need. (The film’s producer, Raymond Lee, plays Moira, a law school professor, who upbraids him for his trans insensitivity: “Sirs? Ma’am, ma’am!”) Indebted to Miss Magda, a hefty, imperious pawnbroker who wears gaudy print dresses and lives with her daughter in a villa overflowing with hocked booty and festooned with crimson Christmas lights—the film tellingly marks the passage of several Yuletide seasons—Fabian arms himself with a knife, rather than Raskolnikov’s ax, to slay the hard-hearted usurer. (Diaz signals that he is uninterested in a recapitulation of Dostoyevsky’s novel by making the second victim the pawnbroker’s daughter rather than stepsister.) Superbly acted and elegantly constructed and shot, Norte differs from Diaz’s first telling of Crime and Punishment in the aggressive Criminal of Barrio Concepcion, replacing its zooms-and-music style with an implicative sound design that refuses nondiegetic music, and discreet camerawork that obscures much of the savagery.

Perhaps taking its cue from haiku, Norte is structured as a trio of intertwined tales—that of Fabian and those of the falsely accused husband forced to take the fall for the pawnbroker’s murder and his abiding wife: Joaquin is an impoverished worker with an injured leg, sentenced to life imprisonment for the crime; Eliza, who brings up their two small children in his absence, sustains a wavering faith that he will be exonerated. (Diaz is characteristically observant of Filipino class distinctions, as when Eliza is unable to understand a lawyer who speaks to her in English.) In true Dostoyevskian fashion, the suffering couple approach sainthood in their selfless determination to remain hopeful and help others in need. Joaquin, described by a cell mate as an angel, nurses his fellow prisoners, including the sadistic, tattooed thug Wakwak, who first delivers a baleful rendition of “O Holy Night” and a vicious beating, and is last seen croaking, “Forgive me,” as his expiring body undergoes Joaquin’s tender ministrations. (Joaquin’s rotting tooth references the dental dilemma of Serafin Geronimo in Diaz’s first film, itself a nod to Dostoyevsky’s contemplation of physical suffering in Notes from Underground.) Associated with anointment and ablution—Joaquin and Eliza water soil and trees, wash produce and flesh, as a course of nurture, while Fabian proffers only money in his bid for expiation—the persevering husband and wife achieve quotidian grace but cannot escape the cruel caprice of their god or the contrivance of their maker. (The bus crash that dispatches Eliza in the film’s disturbing denouement seems less a comment on the vagaries of fate than a tactic out of the shock cinema of Carlos Reygadas, much as Joaquin’s death or transfiguration—Diaz leaves it ambiguous—seems derived from the uncanny cinema of Apichatpong Weerasethakul.)

A great admirer of the Russian Orthodox director Andrei Tarkovsky, Diaz was raised by a fervently Catholic mother and has often been characterized as a “spiritual” director, but his metaphysics in Norte has been reduced to a sort of neorealist schematism. Certainly, the film evinces a traditional vision of family values, in which the martyred, impoverished couple are determined to stay together—Joaquin could have left the country to make a living—so that their children grow up with both parents. Other people desire fancy cars, but theirs are not proper families, Eliza avers. Meanwhile, Fabian, whose first transgression was sleeping with his best friend’s girl and whose last will be the vicious killing of his dog, reveals that he has suffered from the very upbringing Eliza describes: one of wealth coupled with parental neglect. Having gained weight, a beard, and a neck tattoo during his voyage into self-hatred, Fabian heads home to his Bible-toting sister, Hoda, and her plantation, where the two grew up in some Tagalog version of Written on the Wind. Their parents were always away, one in America, the other in Europe, Fabian complains, and the children were raised by maids. (Thus is a murderer made.) That the film joins Fabian in punishing the two independent, unmarried, and entrepreneurial women, the pawnbroker Magda (by violent death) and the landowner Hoda (by rape), suggests that Diaz’s vision of the Philippines’ current ills may be more reactionary than revolutionary, a reflection of the beliefs of his hero and fount of political conviction, the nineteenth-century nationalist José Rizal, who idealized “virtuous,” devoted women—a character in one of his novels declares that “woman is a flower that should bear fruit and not remain sterile”—and instructed young Filipinas to “awaken and prepare the will of your children to the just and proper appreciation of honor, of sincere and firm purpose, clear judgment, clean behavior, honest acts, love of fellow men, and respect for God.”

Diaz’s essentialist view of women in Norte and his reliance on the elements, particularly fire and water, for his eschatological effects indicate the influence of Tarkovsky, whose antimontage style Diaz has often extolled. Diaz turned Tarkovsky’s long-take aesthetic, which the Russian called “sculpting in time,” into his own trademark: In the opening sequence of Heremias (2006), his fixed camera surveys at patience-testing length a caravan of carts that takes its sweet time climbing a country road. How much cinematographer Larry Manda is responsible for the transformation of Diaz’s visual approach in Norte is an open question—a YouTube omnibus of Manda’s work in commercials indicates little more than proficiency, and his experience in cinema runs the gamut from assisting Diaz on Evolution of a Filipino Family to acting as director of photography on the 2012 Tagalog musical I Do Bidoo Bidoo—but the film unquestionably marks a visual departure for its director. Uncharacteristically shot in color and crisp HD and employing occasional shallow and rack focus, a striking revision of the director’s customary deep-field compositions and the black-and-white cinematography he has favored for more than a decade, Norte abounds in Diaz anomalies (juddering POV shots, a jump cut, close-ups). Less reliant on his fixed-frame plans-séquences, the director frequently resorts to a mobile camera, sometimes subtle—crawling dollies, gliding track shots, imperceptible reframing—sometimes showy: Diaz occasionally sends an airborne helicam, a device used for sports coverage, hurtling across fields and dunes and sweeping over land-stranded boats and ruined shacks. (Natural disaster is rarely far from the director’s ken.)

Fabian’s invocations of such national heroes as Andrés Bonifacio, Edjop (Edgardo Gil Jopson), Emilio Jacinto y Dizon, and Rizal in his beery discourse on Filipino history and inertia are hardly surprising, given Diaz’s oft-repeated historical concerns. But the director’s adamant extracinematic contention that Fabian, as an admirer of the Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, is the embodiment of fascism and that Norte, shot on the northern island of Luzon in the area where Marcos grew up and where his dynasty still reigns, is about the “birth of fascism,” remains moot at film’s end. Fabian’s nihilism reaps destruction, but Diaz relies on psychology, not ideology, to explain his protagonist’s wantonness (which in any case is not synonymous with fascism). As Diaz’s beloved Rizal writes in “The Song of Maria Clara,”a poem from his 1887 novel Noli Me Tángere,“Deathly is the breeze for one without / A country, without a mother, and without love.”

Norte, the End of History opens nationally this summer.

James Quandt is senior programmer at TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto.