Starring: Sid Lucero, Angeli Bayani, Archie Alemania
Filipino law student Fabian (Lucero) is becoming increasingly disillusioned with the westernization of his country and how the ruling classes rule the country with corruption and complacency, claiming that it is time an individual stood up . Joaquin (Alemania) struggles to provide for his wife Eliza (Bayani) and their children, and he and Fabian both owe money to Magda (Mae Paner), a member of the bourgeoisie who shows a complete lack of compassion for the poor citizens who owe her money. In what he feels is deserved punishment, Fabian brutally murders Magda and her daughter, with Joaquin being wrongly convicted of the crime. Eliza is left to look after and provide for the children by herself, while Joaquin begins a life sentence and his time in prison is a horrific experience at first, but also brings with it a sense of inner peace and redemption. Meanwhile Fabian, though in reality a free man, becomes increasingly imprisoned in a metaphorical prison he creates for himself and this and his increasing disillusionment with society pushes him increasingly to the edge of his sanity.
I, like so many, often criticise a lot of films these days for being too long, however at a length of over four hours this by the standards of Filipino auteur Lav Diaz, is actually quite short. Though it is understandably an off-putting running time, it is a running time that is fully justified by the fact that it fits perfectly in a both a stylistic and tonal sense with the narrative. Norte, The End of History is a contemporary retelling of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, keeping all the ideas in the novel that are universal, but also applying them to make a film that is also a commentary on life in modern day Philippines.
This a film rich with ideas and commentaries on a vast array of subjects, and so therefore in my view justifies its running time as Diaz examines all these ideas with skilful, subtle and thoughtful precision to produce a truly engaging film whose themes linger in the mind a long time after the four hours have finished.
Throughout the narrative Diaz’s camera remains static, with long takes and long, widescreen shots. The camera is merely the observer and it is the thoughts and actions of these characters that are important. Each shot and frame is a thing of beauty, but this is a film with an abundance of style and substance in equal measure.
The tone of the film is consistent too; the film’s more dramatic moments (in terms of narrative developments) are shot in exactly the same way as scene’s that perhaps have little impact on the overall narrative (by definition). Every action, thought and piece of dialogue is important as the other as they still help to shape the journey of the film’s three main characters and Diaz truly appreciates this. Norte, the End of History may go against some the rules and conventions in the text book of basic screenwriting and filmmaking, but is so much better for it as though this may be fiction, is it very much a depiction of realistic characters in very real situations. Diaz’s approach makes Norte, the End of History a far more personal viewing experience as him never patronising the viewer by giving stylistic importance to certain moments means we can employ our own ideologies, experiences and ultimately interpretation to what is presented within the narrative. Diaz produces the ultimate balancing act on making the film both epic and intimate, and therefore infinitely a more rewarding viewing experience.
The social commentary of the film may be lost on many westerners like myself, and if I were to go deeply into the film’s deep and intelligent examination of 21st century Philippines then I would simply be plagiarising what has been written by others. However many elements of the social commentary are universal and could be applied to all cultures along with the universal ideas on the human condition of Dostoyevsky’s novel.
Diaz’s deliberately measured pace gives the viewer the chance to really get to know and care for the characters and be deeply affected by what happens to them. Though the ideologies and experiences of the characters may be caused by the society they life in, they are also universal and completely relatable. Life can be cruel and deeply unfair, and there are moments in Norte, the End of History which is truly devastating viewing and it is down to Diaz’s storytelling that they are so. At the heart of the narrative is also the notion that no crime goes unpunished, and this is explored profoundly within the narrative and the experiences of Fabian and Joaquin prove that a prison is not necessarily just a physical building.
Norte, the End of History is more than just a film that explores engaging and involving ideas; this is a film to also promote thought and discussion on many fascinating and relevant subjects, and Diaz should only be applauded for making films that do that. Norte, the End of History is truly ambitious filmmaking, and it is full credit to the skill, talent and intelligence of Lav Diaz that he sees this ambition through and always feels in control of it to produce one of the very best films of 2014.
Four hours is by anyone’s standards, a long time; however when it is spent watching a deeply involving film such as Norte, the End of History, a film that is not only a profoundly engaging story but is also rich with so many captivating and engrossing ideas, it truly is four hours very much well spent.