Norte, The End of History (Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan): Cannes Review

Norte Cannes Film Still - H 2013

Norte Cannes Film Still - H 2013

Critically lauded four-hour "epic" of Filipino social injustice is much more telenovela than Tolstoy.

Sid Lucero and Archie Alemania star in the latest marathon from Filipino auteur Lav Diaz, a Dostoyevskian drama premiering in the festival's Un Certain Regard sidebar.

Twelve months after Darezhan Omirbaev's Student emerged as a breakout hit of Cannes' Un Certain Regard, Lav Diaz's Norte, The End of History (Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan) confirms that adaptations of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment are currently catnip to critics on the Croisette.

But while Omirbaev successfully and succinctly adapted the massively influential Russian novel to modern-day Kazakhstan in 92 minutes, Diaz's looser transplantation of the tale to the 21st century Philippines is a grotesquely distended misfire that clocks in at an utterly unwarranted four hours. Nevertheless, so ecstatic were many reactions to the Cannes premiere, at least from those who didn't fall asleep or walk out, that plentiful festival bookings are regrettably inevitable.

Marathon durations have become Diaz's USP since the doyen of "slow cinema" achieved an international breakthrough with his fourth feature, the 315-minute Batang West Side in 2001. He's already produced no fewer than seven completed works which exceed Norte's mammoth running-time, including the 643-minute Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004) and last year's six-hour Florentina Hubaldo, CTE.

Hailed in certain influential quarters as a major figure in world cinema, Diaz is unquestionably a brave and uncompromising practitioner of his chosen art form. But audiences coming to Norte without prior knowledge of his oeuvre may well wonder what on earth the fuss is about. 

Given the scale of his chosen canvas, for example, it's baffling that Diaz and co-writer Rody Vera should populate the scenario with so few properly delineated characters, and that those characters' development should be so crudely limited. To put it mildly, we aren't dealing with a Hugo, Balzac, George Eliot or Dickens here.

Main focus is on Fabian (Sid Lucero), a narcissistic law student from a privileged background in the Ilocos Norte region, on the Philippine archipelago's northwestern extremity. Local viewers will be well aware that this area was the birthplace of Ferdinand Marcos, a lawyer who ruled as the nation's notoriously repressive president for two decades.

The thirtyish Fabian is an idealistic malcontent with an unsatisfying sex life who, during drunken bull sessions with his intellectual friends, becomes increasingly vocal about the need to put philosophical ideas into practice. Before we can say 'Rodion Raskolnikov' Fabian has brutally murdered venal moneylender Magda (Mae Paner) and the sole witness to the attack, Magda's spoiled but innocent teenage daughter.

Clumsily misleading editing -- Diaz serves as his own cutter -- raises the possibility that this event might just have been a dream of Fabian's. But over the course of an hour's elliptical scenes, it gradually becomes evident that the crime has actually been pinned on one of Magda's hapless clients, Joaquin (Archie Alemania), who lives in a nearby village with his wife, Eliza (Angeli Bayani), and two young children.

Joaquin ends up serving a life sentence in a maximum security penitentiary, to the anguish of his loved ones -- in one of the more psychologically implausible sequences, Eliza seriously considers taking her own life as well as those of her traumatized offspring. Fabian, meanwhile, experiences intermittent guilt-pangs that help loosen his tenuous grip on reality -- with further violent consequences.

Diaz and Vera don't much bother with secondary characters here, instead alternating between Fabian and Joaquin and their very different fates. Fabian's transition from preening bohemian chatterbox to bestial psychotic is seldom convincing, but at least his character gets to change a little over the course of the years. Joaquin and Eliza are little more than plaster saints from beginning to end in a film which simplistically equates poverty with spiritual purity and fortitude.

There's little in the way of genuine depth, complexity or nuance here, Diaz instead seeking to convey the illusion of profundity by having various characters throw around weighty social and philosophical verbiage in thuddingly sophomoric fashion. In adherence to fashionable slow-cinema techniques, countless scenes are protracted to double or treble their natural length, with Lauro Rene Manda's widescreen digital camera lingering pointlessly on static tableaux.

A slicker and more professional affair than Diaz's previous outings, Norte does achieve the occasional impressive effect, such as a sublime sequence of dawn rising over Joaquin and Eliza's riverside village. But these grace notes are much too few and far between to sustain much interest as the minutes tick by into hours to no real discernible end.

Countless filmmakers before Omirbaev and Diaz have been attracted by Dostoyevsky's 1866 novel. But here it feels like yet more intellectual window dressing, as well as a degree of self-homage given that Diaz's 1998 debut, The Criminal of Barrio Concepcion, was also drawn from the same source material (Joaquin's prison nickname "Rotten Tooth" is a direct reference to the dentally-troubled hero of the earlier movie.) 

With its melodramatic devices, torrid emotions and cruelly arbitrary treatment of its characters - the culminatory deus ex machina is a particularly harsh example of fickle fate in operation - Norte often feels more suited to miniseries exposure on national TV rather than export as an example of Philippine cinema's current fecundity. But even on the tube the gargantuan length and sluggish pace would pose major problems, Diaz being one of those filmmakers who, apparently incapable of conveying the passage of time, instead must simply inflict it.

Venue:  Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Production company:  Wacky O
Cast:  Sid Lucero, Archie Alemania, Angeli Bayani, Mae Paner, Soliman Cruz
Director/Editor:  Lav Diaz
Screenwriters:  Lav Diaz, Rody Vera
Producers:  Wacky O, Raymond Lee
Director of photography:  Lauro Rene Manda
Production designer:  Perry Dizon
Sales: Wacky O, Manila
No MPAA rating, 250 minutes (Cannes version ran 246 minutes, with truncated end credits)