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Norte: The End of History

August 9, 2014

Norte: The End of History (2013)
Director: Lav Diaz
Actors: Sid Lucero, Archie Alemania, Angeli Bayani

norte-the-end-of-history--008.jpg (140×84)

Synopsis: In Ilocos Norte, a small province in the north of the Philippines, louche, wannabe anarchic student, Fabian (Sid Lucero) commits a sudden reckless act of violence when he murders the local pawnbroker and her daughter. Poor, hardworking family man, Joaquin (Archie Alemania), is convicted of the crime through circumstantial evidence, and endures a long sentence in a Philippine penitentiary. Over the years, Joaquin’s time in jail and his family’s struggles on the homefront, are contrasted with Fabian’s driftings between Norte and Manila, trying to assuage himself of his guilt….

Review: Simply stunning image-making lies at the heart of this mesmeric parable from the Philippines by Lav Diaz. What makes Norte: The End of History so memorable is not the portentous narrative per se (it’s classically Shakespearian and Dostoyevskian in content), but more how the musings of that narrative are honoured by truly superlative filmmaking from Diaz. Most directors would let the medium be subservient to the rich storyline, but not Diaz who actually elevates and ellucidates the themes of the narrative through complete mastery of the photographic, cinematographic, editorial and overall ‘ambience’-making potential of his craft.

To very loosely pin Diaz’s method down, he starts most scenes on some form of static, panoramic tableau, contextualising the geographical and social locus we’re about to see, and then when the characters and dramaturgy fill the frame, subtle, gentle camera movements help accentuate the piece’s rhetoric and irony much more than contemporary cinema’s reliance on cutting and soundtrack to effect narrative momentum. In terms of technique and themes, I almost thought Diaz was crafting a form of Filipino cousin to Philippe Garel’s languorous Regular Lovers, which deconstructed the ultimate failings of the 1968 Paris Riots. Here, we also have articulate, affluent students, opining about the redundancy and sterility of their post-Marxist, post-idealist society, but who – in the case of Fabian – commit the cardinal error of underestimating their own inculcation by that ‘culture’, and embark on a clumsy, but ultimately far-reachingly tragic, ‘revolutionary’ act.

The scene that many commentators have remarked as apotheosis of Diaz’s genius is the one when Joaquin’s wife Eliza seemingly considers throwing herself and/or her kids off a cliff after her husband’s incarceration, and while it’s a very theatrically compelling sequence, I actually preferred the opening moments of the film that beautifully articulate this core theme of the fundamental inert corruption of Fabian. The film opens on Fabian brow-beating a couple of fellow students in a cafe over his knowledge of philosophy and history, and how he’s so cynical about the sterile state that the Philippines has become. This cuts immediately to the three students leaving the cafe and coming across a gory scene where a young girl seems to have suffered either a bad accident or some sort of violent act, and while other people tend to the girl, Fabian is caught in a miasma of inaction and zero empathy, setting a clear warning sign that this is a man with a dangerous disconnect in his psyche between the ‘real’ and the ‘abstract’. (August 2014)

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