Norte, the End of History‘s screening at Cannes last year was Lav Diaz’s first entry into the most famous film festival of all. Named by Sight and Sound as one of 2013’s top ten films , it should have marked the moment when he finally became impossible to ignore. Nathan Letore looks at the latest film from the legendary Filippino director Diaz’s and why the world needs to pay more attention to his work.
In a decade during which south-east Asian cinema has consistently proved itself amongst the most fertile in the world, Lav Diaz has loomed as a legendary presence, the man behind monstrous films whose names are known but which are rarely seen (usual running times are between six and eight hours), and who is famous more as a mentor to many of the best current Filipino directors than as a director in his own right. Yet though Norte made it into Sight and Sound’s 2013 top ten poll, the film has yet to gain significant attention: one article in Le Monde, none in the Guardian, Libération, FAZ, or even in Les Inrockuptibles (France’s most popular cultural weekly). Lav Diaz was in Cannes, but the world has yet to notice his work.
From this point of view, Norte provides both a perfect entry into, and summation of, Diaz’s world; and a significant departure from it in many ways. Freely inspired by Crime and Punishment, the film stands apart from the original stories which had characterised Diaz’s output since the early 2000s; Norte is also his first colour film in more than a decade, and its running time of four hours and ten minutes places it among the shorter of his works. But as an exploration of the nature of evil in contemporary Filipino society and its consequences for ordinary people, and in its commitment to see the modern history of the Philippines as a history of injustice marked first and foremost by the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, it provides as good a place to start as any.
The link to Ferdinand Marcos is explicitly drawn by law-school drop-out Fabian, the Raskolnikov figure who decides to put in practice his tirades about the death of morality and the need for regenerative violence by killing an obese pawn-broker. As Noel Vera points out, Fabian’s trajectory will be recognisable to any Filipino as a parallel to Marcos’s, also a law student who committed murder in his youth, and Diaz even shot segments of the film in Marcos’s home town. In Norte, unlike in Dostoyevsky’s novel, Fabian is not hounded by the police. Rather, Diaz brings in his binary opposite, the street peddler Joaquin, who gets falsely accused of the crime and is sent to jail, his wife Eliza and their two children forced to fend for themselves. From then on, the film will chart their twin descents to hell: Fabian’s inability to atone for what he did, his conscience hounding him and denying him any solace; and Joaquin’s life in the daily violence of the Filipino prison system, while Eliza has to try and make ends meet without getting swamped by the sheer despair of her situation.
The central theme, that people at the bottom suffer from the will to power of those at the top, is clear enough, as is the almost unequivocal alignment of poor with good and upper-class with evil. What enables the opposition to develop into a dialectic rather than lapsing into a reductive binarism, apart from the richness of Diaz’s vision and the wealth of exquisitely portrayed secondary characters (the prison comes alive as a fully functional microcosm in a way few prison films manage), is his willingness to play with the audience’s expectations in ways that significantly complicate the audience’s initial assessment of the characters. This is more particularly true of Fabian, Joaquin diverting less from his uncomplicated belief in, and expression of, basic human decency. Thus, as if to goad the audience into accepting Fabian at face value, much is made of Fabian’s charisma and intelligence and of the monstrosity of the pawn-broker, who until she is murdered stands as the film’s one figure of unambiguous loathing. While Diaz never considers any of his actions justified (Fabian not only kills the pawn-broker, but also her daughter, a teenager who had shown affection for him in an earlier scene), his theme is as much concerned with the fascination that figures such as Fabian as it is with the evil they inflict.
This is obvious from the very first shot, which establishes a pattern that will dominate for the rest of the film: Fabian is introduced mid-conversation with his friends, the camera slowly closing in on him to exclude his environment, placing him at the centre of the audience’s attention. Sure enough, most scenes consist of a single shot, with slow, barely noticeable reframing bringing attention to the underlying dynamics. This too is a departure from Diaz’s usual fixed camera, which in his earlier films stood by in tense anticipation as brutal social antagonisms simmered under the surface and finally exploded. Indeed, if his camera movements are often astonishing in their fluidity and in their ability to integrate characters within landscapes, what he gains in visual mobility comes at the expense of sheer tension. While his earlier films created a mood of almost unbearably tense expectation, Norte on the other hand unfolds with all the horror of history and inevitable suffering, with the doom of lost causes rather than the violence of necessary struggles.
This is perhaps the place to express reservations with what is perhaps the film’s only true false note, its ending. As will have been clear, the whole film has been based on an exploration of social evil. Suffering is inflicted first and foremost by social circumstances, poverty, and structures of authority. Acts of everyday kindness may not be the answer to a political problem, but they hint at least at the possibility of transformation, and of more human interactions. Yet the final minutes of the film, in which a completely accidental event shatters all possibility of happiness, stick out like a sore thumb, replacing a sprawling portrait of an inhuman society with a wasteland of metaphysical despair. Overwhelming the audience with pain, the film does reach a climax of astonishing poetry and delicacy, a shot which resonates months after the viewing. That his considerable weakening of the film’s political approach, which comes at the expense of coherence, would still lead to a climax of astonishing poetry and delicacy is testament to the force of Diaz’s vision.
Nor is the poetry of the final moments, a full departure from the realist tone of the rest of the film, completely unprecedented. Throughout the second half of the film, Diaz regularly inserts low-definition shots (of fields, beaches, villages…) taken from a small helicam device. These shots, unconstrained by any human point of view and not bound by any narrative meaning or revelatory function, emerge without prior warning or explanation. The contrast between the lush richness of the other images and the coarse graininess of these sudden erratic movements makes for a striking impact, all the more visceral as these images hover ambiguously between liberating mobility and foreboding grimness. And it is maybe in this sudden irruption of the unforeseen and unexplainable that the tension at the heart of Diaz’s project is most apparent: more than any other film-maker working today, Diaz is a film-maker of suffering, of its causes and consequences, and of the possibility for living despite it. His outlook, which locates pain even in the oases of liberty he offers us, is not a comforting one. But his true radicalism lies in his unflagging belief that however painful and incomplete, these small, irreducible islands of freedom are nevertheless the central question at the heart of human existence.