For three hours, Lav Diaz’s Norte, The End Of History feels close to the masterpiece many claim it is, a formally impeccable reworking of Dostoyevsky’s Crime And Punishment that’s richly specific to the Philippines—its landscape, its social structure, its prisons, its poverty. Then in the fourth hour, it becomes something far more familiar, the sort of sex-and-death master-shot cinema practiced by early Bruno Dumont or Carlos Reygadas, with the obligatory nod to the Transcendent. What once seemed complex turns reductive; what once seemed singular turns almost formulaic. It’s not like Diaz’s formidable artistry abandons him—every composition is balanced and mount-on-the-wall evocative, and his sound often has a three-dimensional lushness—but Norte is the rare film where the characters seem simpler the longer we spend time with them. They’re humans that evolve into types.
As with Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov, who searches for the moral justification for killing a pawnbroker, Fabian (Sid Lucero), an intellectual held in esteem by his law-school peers, is inclined to liberate himself from traditional notions of right or wrong. Over drinks with friends, Fabian gets laughs from his pronouncements on anarchism and existentialism, but what he’s really talking about is post-philosophy and post-morality—by the time he gets around to discussing how killing off society’s bad elements is the best way to get rid of them, the laughter has curdled. Fabian’s transgressions begin when he sleeps with his buddy’s girlfriend, but eventually, he targets Magda (Mae Paner), a wealthy, pitiless lender he owes money, though he comes from a privileged background.
Meanwhile, Joaquin (Archie Alemania) and Eliza (Angeli Bayani) are dealing with the fallout from a catastrophic injury to Joaquin’s leg, which strains their already-meager savings, intended to bankroll a restaurant for Eliza. They also borrow money from Magda, who’s equally unsentimental about their situation, to the point where Joaquin physically attacks her in frustration. So naturally, when Fabian murders Magda and her daughter later the next evening, Joaquin gets booked for the crime and sent to the National Penitentiary on a life sentence. That leaves Eliza and their two children to destitution, with Joaquin grappling with the guilt and anguish of the fallout.
Stories like this can be (and have been) told in half the time, but the film’s 250-minute sprawl is one of its greatest strengths. Diaz works in long takes—some static, and others with subtly emphatic movement—but the scenes rarely feel attenuated. Confrontations develop at a slow boil, like the parallel scenes of Fabian, Joaquin, and Eliza pleading with their lender, or the brutality of a prison where the guards have no reaction to inmate health crises, and a vicious lifer (Soliman Cruz) beats men nearly to death for looking at him askance. There are gentler sequences, too, that gain vitality and life from full explication, like an acoustic guitar piece that brings a temporary peace to Joaquin’s eight-person cell, or the relief that Eliza’s cooking offers to a home filled with hardship and heartbreak. Norte is only a “difficult” experience for those who reject its rhythms out of hand—as marathons go, it runs at steady pace.
And yet the longer Fabian, Joaquin, and Eliza hold the screen, the more they seem reduced to types, subject to some pre-digested notions of man’s capacity for absolute decency and absolute savagery. Whatever moral culpability Joaquin has for assaulting Magda, however briefly, in the early going dissipates under a wave of good deeds so persuasive that it seems to affect a change in prison culture; whatever guilt Fabian carries for ruining Joaquin and Eliza’s life doesn’t suppress his sudden, almost arbitrary spasms of violence. And the spiritual undercurrent that runs through both sides of this story come through in the sort of transcendent moment that was astonishing in Carl Dreyer’s Ordet, but has almost become de rigueur on the festival circuit.
Norte, The End Of History doesn’t take a wrong turn in the fourth hour—it was always headed in that direction, which retroactively tarnishes the many virtues of its first three hours. The most charitable view is that Diaz is ultimately more interested in larger themes of morality, religion, justice, and history than in the characters, who become more representative than human. In that, Diaz departs sharply from Dostoyevsky, which settles in Raskolnikov’s tortured conscience; by externalizing Fabian’s torments, the film turns broad and schematic. There are still moments of great beauty and poetry even when it goes astray, however, including the effectively discreet use of offscreen violence. They’re just no longer tethered to a persuasive vision.