Lav Diaz’ Norte, The End of History screens at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center as part of their New Directions/New Auteurs programming, highlighting contemporary cinema from the Philippines. It screens twice and I relent that it may take two viewings, likely many more, to master this refreshingly challenging work. Bear in mind that the film is not impenetrable and barring a few scenes toward the end of the picture, is not likely to confuse its audience. Rather, it’s surprisingly grounded in the human experience.
The ideas that Diaz tinkers with are simple: justice, love, and society. It’s the stuff of grand literature, with Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment serving as the critical point of reference for at least an hour of the film’s runtime. Yet the film expounds upon the travails of Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov by submitting a socially conscious study of three people living in the Northwest Philippines. It might be reflective of Dostoevsky’s universality that the fundamentals of Crime and Punishment could be lifted to such a far off setting, but the cultural specificity of Diaz’ work does not make Norte any less relatable or stirring. Coping with guilt and contending with eking a living are Norte’s primary thematic concerns - though clearly these are the concerns of most every human being on the planet.
All this talk on the intrinsic human quality of Norte is really meant to discourage the discouraged. With a four hour runtime, Diaz is asking for a commitment to his film that some may find too challenging. But that’s silly. The runtime is not an obstacle. Every scene bleeds onto the following one, perpetually moving to the point that it’s impossible not to be entranced by the picture’s grace. Condensed within an hour of the film’s runtime is the introduction of three characters, a murder, and the imprisonment of an innocent man. What proceeds are the moral reverberations of cause and effect, of actions and consequences.
The thematic richness of Norte is equaled through Diaz’ formal elegance. Take the opening sequence, a political and philosophical discourse between three twenty-somethings. Diaz’ camera zooms impossibly slowly as their discussion grows increasingly heated. The effect is one of the many subtle ways that Diaz begins to envelop his audience, as if the camera is slyly tilting its way to overhear a conversation not meant to be overheard. Or take a critical sequence involving a mother and her children following a visit with their incarcerated father. The scene is dramatically weighty enough, but at this point Diaz has established a penchant to hide violence away from the screen. The way the camera is positioned, pointing upward toward a cliff as a mother and her children stare downward, implies that a similar strategy is about to be employed. Understanding how Diaz has been framing events in the preceding hours and seeing him exercise repeated techniques builds an anticipatory reaction between viewer and text. In many ways, Diaz is establishing formal precedent to pace his audience and surprising us when he deviates from what we expect.
Norte, in what can only be considered reflective of Dostoevsky’s prominence, conjures images of so many other films in its design. It’s a conglomeration of Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, Edward Yang’s A Bright Summer Day, and Robert Bresson’s L’Argent. Norte fittingly belongs in those films’ company. Those films are not impenetrable. They are films that speak to truths about the human experience and leave it at that. Norte is no different.