This review contains plot details.
Dostoevsky is a brutal writer, wringing moral development out of human suffering and calamity perhaps like no other. When approaching his film adaptations, there is a gulf between the filmmakers that get clogged down with obsessive period details (a problem that plagues adaptations of that other great humanistic Russian, Tolstoy) and the filmmakers that understand that it is the emotional development that drives his stories and characters forward, not their era. Lav Diaz is a director firmly in the latter category and his recent, pleasantly vague fugue on Crime and Punishment, Norte, The End of History (2013), is one of the more affecting and effective of Dostoevsky flavoured work.
For a director whose films often clock in at extraordinary lengths, sometimes eight or nine hours, Norte seems at once more accessible. At just over four hours, it naturally fits into that ever evasive but determined movement now vulgarly labelled as “Slow Cinema”. To look at other films in the movement shines a light on Norte‘s individuality, far from dominated by the persistent long takes of Béla Tarr and Theo Angelopoulos. In fact, Norte seems relatively pacy in its moments of action, and cuts far more than the typical rhythms associated with the movement; for a story that descends into such moral cataclysms, it’s hardly surprising.
Diaz hasn’t literally adapted Crime and Punishment but has used its mould to highlight ideas that provide comment on the modern day Philippines, as well as embellishing the story with some shocking and disturbing drama. Fabian, played with casual intensity by Sid Lucero, is surprisingly off centre within the context of this narrative form. His literature equivalent, Raskolnikov, traditionally makes up most of the typical narrative which often follows the pattern of his philosophical excesses, the murder, the paranoia and then his confession and punishment. Here, Diaz deliberately muddies the water, not only by showing Fabian to be inherently bad as well as occasionally decent through guilt but also by shifting almost a whole hour of the film to concentrate on the character who takes the wrap for the crime he commits, Joaquin (Archie Alemania).
Crime and Punishment can often be read as the moral evolution caused by the falling into of academic excess. Raskolnikov and Fabian both murder because they are educated, because they hide their rabid class privilege, and because they see themselves as some purveyor of moral justice. Diaz also opts to show the evolution of the victim of this excess, with Joaquin’s emotional change being just as dramatic and poignant as Fabian’s. In one sense, the two character’s relationships act like a pair of lifts. Joaquin begins desperate and low, his leg injured, selling pirate DVD’s to try and make money for his family. By the end, false imprisonment has matured him rather than broken him, his humanistic streak sometimes getting him in to trouble with the more powerful inmates.
By comparison, Diaz deliberately shows Fabian to be the opposite with only a few moments of glimmering hope. He begins as simply arrogant and descends downwards into murder and worse. In this sense, Diaz is commenting on Filipino politics; on its corruption through presumed moral right and academic power. Fabian betrays his best friend by sleeping with his girlfriend early on in the film and this sets up a potential precedent for the character as a whole. By the time his “lift” has reached the bottom of the shaft, he is far gone; beating his childhood pet dog to death with his bare hands and raping his sister. Far from evolving, Fabian’s crime has opened up a well of moral despair that he falls down and wallows in.
Aside from the drama, Diaz uses the aesthetics of the film to mark out the general disintegration of his characters. The films begins visually in an almost bland digital fashion but becomes more contrasted as it progresses. He also makes use of the landscape in the most stunning of ways, often suggesting that characters have the potential to purify themselves of their actions within its vastness, only to show that it is simply a hollow reflection of their reality that they perceive in Ilocos Norte’s stunning waters. His camera gently glides through these landscapes, as if resisting the bare insinuation that it isn’t a fiction captured but instead a portrait of the province and its issues.
When Diaz eventually comes to break this mantra, it comes as a shock. Joaquin’s prison dreams are shown to be captured, very clearly both visually and aurally, by a camera mounted on some sort of quad-copter, but these dreams are eventually shown completely diegetically through a transcendental levitation sequence straight out of Tarkovsky. Through this, Diaz breaks through his own numbing realm, allowing an escape into the fiction for the character and the viewer, even if only for a grief fragment of time.
There is perhaps a temptation to label the film as difficult. Its length alone belies an assumed patience of its audience far outside what is normal for modern, jittery cinema goers. Yet the label undersells Norte‘s drama which, like its source inspiration, has the potential of speaking to all who have questioned their own moral make-up. Even though it was selected as one of their films of the month, Sight & Sound’s recent review spent most of its word count complaining that Diaz has yet to undergo his own cinematic evolution, decrying the director’s plaudits as being almost apologetic for his aesthetic approach. The review somewhat missed the point as Norte not only shows a director at the top his creative level, it provides a stark questioning of something so basically human that it comes as a breath of unnerving fresh age in an age where escapist convolutions are the norm.
Norte, The End of History, is released in cinemas on the 18th of July and on DVD on the 29th of September.