Life, to count myself among the teeming masses who reduce the experience to a metaphor, is an incessant series of boring vignettes woven together to create a complete work, a story comprised of writhing and beauty and denouement. Fellow Hoosier Kurt Vonnegut once famously articulated the divide between life and fiction as comparative graphs of the lives of Cinderella and the common life. Cinderella’s graph read like a sudden seismic onslaught on the Richter Scale, whereas life in practical application moves in consistency with occasional aberrations. Good storytellers follow Cinderella; great storytellers find narrative in the slow, pendulous march.
If you take anything from even hearing the name Norte, The End of History, walk away with the knowledge that the Philippines is establishing itself not only as an emerging economic and social presence in modernity, but also as a culture invested in film and the chronicling of past, present, and future. Spanning over four hours, Norte not only separates “true” cinemaphiles from obnoxious kids who read The Dissolve (shots fired), but acts as a watershed for a country’s willingness to invest in long-spanning film endeavors à la Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander and Kieslowski’s The Decalogues. This experience is long, measured, and intended to make you reconsider from where powerful cinema can be born.
Based loosely on Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the film — in a spartan narrative sense — follows the lives of a man who committed a murder and the man who pays penance for the murder. Squirming through this premise are the lives of a nation, the ideas of a generation, and the conatus of an array of people attempting to understand their lot. Stratified but inclusive in the fashion of Joyce (or even The Wire; go on, fight me), the narrative follows the main characters of Fabian (Sid Lucero), the entitled, over-intellectualized solipsist degenerate; Joaquin (Archie Alemania), the unfortunate fall-guy yeomanry; and Eliza (Angeli Bayani), the wife to Joaquin who forges through life in absence of a breadwinner. After four hours, you walk away with these people standing next to you.
Remember how there are a bunch of people stoked on Western religion for the better part of the last 30 years? You’ll be thrilled to know the Eastern world also drew interest in what we had going on. In the same way Kim Ki Duk rebranded Christian mythology and morality in his work, director Lav Diaz took Christianity, existentialism, and political unease and sliced it beautifully for interpretation through an Asian lens. Transgression and penance are the two real stars of this film, and while normally such a predictable narrative would be disappointingly static, Diaz infuses so much life into his characters you set disbelief to the wayside and commit.
An even cursory examination of the characters could be the stuff of a dissertation, so it’s better to consider these people as ideas and witness their trials. Honestly, I was astounded that you could take the bleak winter of every Russians author’s life and transpose it into the tropical beauty with the ability of Malik or even Gauguin. Through mostly fixed shots and sluggish scenes of dialogue reminiscent of Slacker, you’re brought to the fore of the intelligentsia malaise to the crushing plight of the lower class. The film, akin to the fecund Cyrillic soil from which it was rent, writhes with no quarter through the abhorrence of life and heightens the experience of the painful reconciliation of personal thought with collective growth.
The cinematography makes you suspect of the fact that Diaz is a first-time Cannes contender. Similar to Malik, the director makes use of his pristine surroundings as additional characters who sit idly by watching the characters rend themselves apart. This film is pain and laughable atonement, with an inherent desire to extend a vision of a world not often seen that can that can stand pound for pound against the Western Canon. But let’s be honest; in the age of Buzzfeed and Bing.tv viewing, you’re not interested in seeing Norte The End of History. It’s okay; I understand. This film is intended for the forerunners and the guys/gals more interested in Antonioni’s work than a list of sassy llamas with hats. Diaz has done a service to his native land by creating a sprawling epic that deserves comparisons to dead writers of the 19th century. If you are one of the few who will commit through the entirety of Norte, you’ll realize that “the next great work” always seems to be cropping up in the East.