Brannavan Gnanalingam

Postcards from Cannes, Part 7: Only God Forgives, Wakolda, Nebraska, Norte, the End of History

IT TAKES A CERTAIN KIND of masochism to want to see a four-hour film after having watched dozens of films in such a concentrated period. But there was no chance that I was going to pass up the opportunity to see Filipino slow cinema pioneer Lav Diaz on the big screen. His latest, Norte, Hangganan Ng Kasaysayan (Norte, the End of History, Un Certain Regard), has the long takes, leisurely pace, and extreme length that has seen him garner a hardcore aficionado reputation—and yet this magnificent new film felt surprisingly concise.

Diaz provides an excoriating and dense view of contemporary Philippines, with his inspiration appearing to come from Dostoevsky—in fact, you could say it’s Crime and Punishment meetsHouse of the Dead. The film covers two narrative strands. In one, a promising law student drops out to pontificate about the ills of the Philippines and debate philosophy and politics with his friends. In the second, a family struggles to cope economically because the father’s broken leg prevents him from working. Both rely on a pawnbroker, and her subsequent violent death spirals off into terrible repercussions for both.

Diaz focuses on guilt and repression; the wrong person is in prison, but instead of Diaz’s characters searching for atonement, they spill into more violent and shocking territory. There is a clear parallel drawn to Filipino history, as early in the film the characters pontificate about bringing a certain criminal political figure to justice. He asserts that the Philippines cannot progress without such a purging. But as the narrative continues, we begin to see why nothing has happened. Diaz presents a society governed by self-preservation, individualism, and arbitrary, insufficient gifts to the have-nots to make up for a lack of proper structural change. Meanwhile, the victims—those crippled by the ruthless capitalism on display in contemporary Philippines—find life harder and harder. Reliance on dignity or religion, while fine, barely seems to cut it in an extremely unfair and corrupt society. Diaz suggests that in any system, and despite any “revolution”, there will always be people left behind.

The images are frequently startling. Diaz is noted for his black and white visuals and rapid approach to filming. Here, the images are almost all perfectly composed and contemplative (it’s a big screen film if ever there was one). His images are constructed via diagonal lines. His characters are frequently static but the implication is clear: things are askew. It is only in the final shot, where the lines move forward as the young victims are forced to walk towards and beyond the camera, that you sense Diaz’s real pessimism with the Philippines’ future. It’s a devastatingly lucid film, and a clear highlight of the festival. Given how impressed critics have been, hopefully we’ll see a wider distribution of his singular oeuvre.