Review: Lav Diaz's NORTE: THE END OF HISTORY is a Masterpiece That Tackles Human Strife
History, however, is also a malleable thing. It can be shaped to favor interests and ideologies. The history that is taught in schools and read in most textbooks has been precisely molded to define the Filipino nation as a product of a variety of struggles of all those who resisted colonialism and those who protect democracy. It instils both pride and a distinguishable identity to the ordinary Filipino. Any Filipino who has a respectable memory of this institutionalized history would have seen his existence as a Filipino citizen as both a gift from those who sacrificed in the past and a responsibility.
Norte: The End of History's Fabian, played by Sid Lucero, is one product of being entrenched this kind of institutionalized history. In fact, he is quite an expert of the institution, garnering respect and awe from both friends and mentors for his mastery and criticism of the establishment. A once promising law student who dropped out of school presumably out of disillusionment, he maintains a modest lifestyle replete with perspective-less intellectual masturbation and erstwhile sexual encounters with debts from and tentative relationships with former classmates and professors.
Intelligent to the point of madness, he favors anarchism to the current state of order. He has a point. The laws he has dedicated some years as a law student has bred evil people, more specifically in the film, Magda, played by theater actress and political advocate Mae Paner, Fabian's creditor who is depicted as avaricious and excessively shrewd to her debtors. In both an effort to prove his point and out of necessity, he kills both Magda and Magda's innocent daughter and takes off with the proceeds of his crime.
Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment immediately comes to mind. The similarities between Diaz's film and the famous Russian novel are definitely uncanny, but it is where the two works separate that makes Norte special. Unlike Dostoevsky who concentrates on examining the criminal, Diaz momentarily leaves Fabian and centers on the real victims of his transgression, Joaquin and Eliza, played respectively by Archie Alemania and Angeli Bayani.
The couple has a small canteen in the works but an accident that broke Joaquin's leg has forced them to pawn everything, including Eliza's prized piece of jewelry, to Magda for a paltry sum. An effort by Joaquin to win the piece of jewelry back from Magda culminates with Joaquin inflicting violence on Magda, making him the logical suspect for the crime that Fabian committed. Joaquin ends up suffering in jail for Fabian's crimes.
By covering Joaquin and Eliza's side of the story, Norte separates itself from Crime and Punishment and posits an exposure of those victims of oppression. At this juncture, Diaz, and scriptwriter Rody Vera, observes the grave injustices that plague the marginalized.
When Eliza pleads her lawyer to act on Joaquin's conviction, the lawyer mouths legalese that cannot possibly comprehended by a lowly commoner. In prison, Joaquin encounters convicts who are momentarily freed by high-ranking officials just to conduct assassinations. By mapping the linked trials of Eliza and Joaquin, Diaz explores the extent of the corruption that has plagued Philippine society. Perhaps the bigger victim of circumstance is Eliza and Joaquin's family, who has been reduced to woe and embarrassment.
Joaquin and his family's reaction to the injustice is bare acceptance. Joaquin fends off prison bullies with benevolence. Eliza, on the other hand, is forced to peddle vegetables for survival. In any other film, their quiet suffering may be regarded as dignity. Diaz however echoes a more painful sense of resolution that can only be borne out of an understanding that hoping can only cause more misery for their kind and their class.
Clearly, Fabian is the more fascinating character. He tests the theories he enjoys lecturing to his friends and mentors by doing away with a person that represents the greed that consumes society, and ends up the very thing he rebels against. He becomes consumed either by guilt or the pain of being betrayed by an entire life's worth of conviction. His story is one that is defined by despair, aimlessly searching for redemption from institutions that represent everything he abhors, whether it be religion, the law, or the landowning family he abandoned a long time ago.
Fabian's chosen path to redemption however is marked by repulsive self-preservation. is facilitation of providing legal recourse for his victims. Fabian exemplifies the same shallow concern and responsibility the ruling class has for the marginalized it has exploited for years. Philippine history has been marked by armed struggles resulting from this parasitic relationship between the haves and the have-nots, where the have-nots are made to suffer the sins of the haves and the haves maintain its moral ascendancy through hollow advocacy.
Norte, by separately exploring the lives of Joaquin and Fabian, maps the immense and glaring gap that separates social classes. Diaz posits a society where evil is bred in situations wherein easy opportunism is available. This is the same evil that Fabian sought to eliminate when he murdered Magda whose desire for profit overtakes her humanity. This is the same evil that consumes Fabian when Joaquin easily becomes the fall guy for his loathsome crime. This is the same evil that dominates the Joaquin's prison cell, where the strong subsist on the weak. This is the very same evil that defines Philippine society and its history of the dominance of the few and the subservience of the masses.
The north of the film's title refers to the rich province made famous by capitalist clans and political dynasties that perpetuate a culture of social stagnancy in the region. It is therefore unsurprising that many critics read Fabian's flawed intellectual of a character as an allusion to dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who despite national derision during the decades after his downfall is still being treated a hero and a treasure in his hometown in the north. Yet Fabian is nowhere as brilliant or as ruthless as Marcos. His crime is also not as grave as Marcos', who ensured his protracted reign by silencing and eliminating opposition. He is more of a by-product of Marcos' legacy, the child of the colossal disillusionment his regime and the disappointment from the broken promises of the renewed democracy has brought.
Interestingly, Norte plots the fate of two families ravaged by a complete collapse of concepts such as laws and justice that keep society from imploding. Although separated by education and social class, Fabian and Joaquin's families share the same destiny of being broken. This is the apocalypse Diaz has envisioned for the Philippines, a country where the most basic units of society are bastardized and torn apart.
Norte, as it is, is an extremely rewarding film. Within the context of Diaz's post-Regal Films, Norte is somewhat of an anomaly. Even at a traditionally lengthy four hour running time, the film is comparably hasty, filling its hours with a substantial amount of plot. While still unflinching when it comes to exposing Diaz's philosophical convictions, Norte is nevertheless the most traditional of his recent films, occupying a position of being an outlier in Diaz's respected filmography in terms of accessibility.
Norte provides its viewers the comfort of being merely spectators of other people's sufferings and sacrifices. Diaz's fascinating use of color and framing, with the invaluable assistance of cinematographer Larry Manda, has created a visually arresting portrait of Filipino strife in the midst of a regime of invisible but very apparent oppression.
Without taking away from its numerous merits, Norte has barely touched the surface of what Diaz's cinema is. Diaz, starting with Batang West Side (West Side Avenue, 2001) up to Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012) has resisted the very common tendency of filmmakers to merely expose characters in a state of anguish, by inviting his audience, whether through the extreme length of his films or through the immersive quality of his uncompromised long takes, to partially share the burden of his characters, whether it be boredom, waiting, violence or pain. Diaz has drastically taken cinema away from being a pastime of idle spectatorship.
Norte is therefore not the pinnacle of Diaz's career. It is but an invitation to his more demanding universe of men and women trapped in a whirlwind of moral, political and spiritual crises. It is a well-adorned gate, complete with pleasures one has learned to expect from traditional cinema, to the purgatories that Diaz has created and will continue to create from his invaluable perspective on human suffering.
According to English novelist George Orwell, "the most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history." Within the four hours of Norte, Diaz has mapped the disparate but connected lives of people struggling in a society that has been skewed by a history plagued with ill motivations and half-truths.