Requires a bigger investment than other films from its viewers, but its returns are just as large. One of the year’s best viewing experiences.
Norte, the End of History
First thing’s first: Lav Diaz’s epic Norte, the End of History is 250 minutes in length, a relatively short running time for the Philippine director (2008’s Melancholia runs 450 minutes, while 2004’s Evolution of a Filipino Family is a whopping 647 minutes). People will naturally run in the other direction the moment they see the four-plus hour runtime, but those willing to give Diaz’s film a chance are in for something special. Yes, Norte requires a bigger investment than other films from its viewers, but its returns are just as large.
Fabian (Sid Lucero) is a law school dropout working at a café, barely making enough money to scrape by. He continues to visit his old classmates and professors, all of whom beg him to return and finish up the last year of his studies. Despite his intelligence (friends and colleagues repeatedly mention how he was the smartest person in their class), Fabian is too disillusioned with the world to pursue anything. He believes in a worldview where, to be good or return to a “zero society,” everything bad or immoral must be destroyed.
Eliza (Angeli Bayani) and Joaquin (Archie Alemania) were in the midst of opening their own business when an accident almost killed Joaquin. Their funds depleted, the couple rely on help from Magda, a local loan shark, to lend them money. With Eliza finding no work, and Joaquin unable to work, Eliza begins selling their possessions to pay off debts. When Eliza sells off a family heirloom to Magda, Joaquin tries to get it back, only to freak out and attack Magda when she refuses. Fabian, who also happens to borrow money from Magda, decides to start putting his theories and philosophies into practice. Fabian murders Magda, along with her daughter for being a witness to the crime, and flees.
Joaquin’s assaulting of Magda makes him an immediate suspect, and in almost no time he’s arrested and sentenced to life in prison. At this point, just over a quarter into the film, Diaz more or less puts the brake on plot development. Diaz cross cuts between Fabian, Eliza and Joaquin at a slower pace, sometimes focusing on one person for up to a half hour before switching over to the next. The change in pace is an effective tactic, though; as each character gets displaced in the aftermath of Fabian’s murders (Eliza moves north with her family to make a living pushing a vegetable cart, Fabian tries to start anew in Manila, and Joaquin serves his time far away in the national penitentiary), Diaz’s elongated focus on each person reflects their newfound isolation.
Diaz’s camerawork, filled with one stunning composition after another, helps the four hours go by a lot faster than one would expect. Much of the running time could be attributed to how Diaz approaches every scene, creating a deliberate pace throughout the film. His lingering on scenes, characters and landscapes feels natural. Scenes feel like they’re unfolding on their own terms instead of feeling like constructions. The way that, despite the artistic framing and carefully planned shots, Diaz’s film feels completely authentic might be the most exciting aspect of Norte.
That authenticity might have to do with Diaz’s placement of character at the forefront of his film. Norte is a highly political film (Diaz has stated plenty of times how Fabian relates to the rise of fascism in his country, among many other political aspects), but the politics rightfully take a backseat to Fabian, Eliza & Joaquin. The various intellectual conversations in the film’s first hour are overflowing with political and philosophical content, but they’re used to develop Fabian as a character. Diaz merely needs to let his drama play out to let audiences see the dramatic irony; Fabian’s act of true justice only led to an even greater injustice. Class division eventually comes into play as we learn more about Fabian’s background, which only emphasizes Eliza and Joaquin’s suffering. Watching the couple simply try to persevere through their circumstances in comparison to Fabian’s internal struggles (along with the shocking directions it takes in the final act) says plenty on its own.
For as much as Diaz spends time showing how his film’s universe isn’t just, towards the final hour he overreaches a bit. Diaz’s saintly portrayal of Eliza and Joaquin reaches a borderline hysteria by the end, and the fate of one character feels like Diaz unnecessarily showing his hand to prove a point he already established. The somewhat unsatisfactory conclusion luckily doesn’t take away from everything that came before it. There are plenty of moments throughout Norte where it realizes its full potential, showing off an amazing breadth and scale that makes it feel on par with reading a great novel. For those willing to give Diaz’s film a chance, Norte will provide one of the year’s best viewing experiences.