My friends and I decided to spend more than four hours of our Sunday to watch Lav Diaz’s ‘Norte: The End of History,’ or as my friend Elfer put it, Norte: The End of Attention Span. While a swarm of pre-teens lined up for She’s Dating the Gangster (God bless Philippine cinema), my pretentious friends and I decided to check out the other Filipino film which was screened at Cannes.
The film, loosely based on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, revolves around an opinionated law school dropout, Fabian, and his frustration with the Philippines. In actualizing his Machiavellian desire to rid society of evil, he kills an abusive usurer and her daughter, and flees to the city. An innocent father of a poor family takes the fall. After four years, Fabian returns to the province to atone for his sins, but his guilt and intellectual convictions drive him on the dangerous edge of sanity.
In coming up with my opinions on a movie, I rely on my immediate impression after the film ends, after which I rationalize why my thoughts and feelings were such. It’s my first time to watch a Diaz film, and I’m afraid I struggled digesting the four-hour opus. Up to now I still don’t know what to make of it. In explaining my thoughts to a friend, I said I thought understanding the film was like learning German. I know a little German, but I don’t really know German.
Let’s start digesting it then.
I can approximate Diaz’s storytelling with that of Brillante Mendoza in ‘Thy Womb,’ where the characters’ moments of silence speak louder than their dialogue. Both films were peppered with long, uninterrupted shots of characters and settings, an attempt to fully immerse the audience with the character’s emotions and the weight of the story. (Cannes bait!) A major difference, though, is that Thy Womb ran for 106 minutes. Norte? 250.
However, while Norte is full of silence and long takes (including dream sequences shot with a flying GoPro), the limited dialogue permeates with a sense of foreboding even on the silent parts. Another friend jokingly said the long shots also serve as cues for the audience to think about what just happened and what will probably happen next. Even in silence, the film is relentless in its attempt to get the audience thinking.
The film starts with a coffee shop chit chat among Fabian and his professors about good and evil, instinct as a moral compass and the immorality of all things absolute. The intellectual masturbation is punctuated by a joke, (as what happens in other ‘intellectual’ parts of the film) and the pretentiousness of it all unfolds when Fabian says he just wants to borrow money.
Diaz casts a dark and depressing spirit for the most part of the film, then he drives the knife in the final part to shock the sleeping audience (We were seated beside someone who fell asleep and snored at one point). Fabian is struggling to commit to his flimsy intellectual convictions, but when he finally does so, he is confronted by the truth that his professors have been telling him from the start: his thoughts are immoral, barbaric and meaningless. This is where the film becomes ultimately tragic and deeply disturbing.
Overall, I think Norte is a great attempt at an intellectual, depressing film that deserves to be screened at Cannes. I have to be honest, though. My initial reaction is that it’s not my cup of tea. Maybe I should’ve seen She’s Dating the Gangster instead.
P.S. Support Filipino films! We have lots of talented filmmakers in the independent scene and they deserve tons of appreciation here at home.