It’s a dark irony of revolutions that those best-educated in their rhetoric are nearly always the least equipped to carry them out; it’s rarely in the temperament of the intellectual to take to the streets, however dogmatically he articulates the need to. As Lav Diaz conceives him in his new film, Norte, the End of History, the quintessential would-be Filipino revolutionary is both a braggart and a bum, enamored of his own radical convictions but disinclined to do much of anything about them, at least while there’s beer to be imbibed. The lout in question is Fabian (Sid Lucero), a Rodion Raskolnikov for the modern Philippines, or simply a smart but dilettantish law-school dropout with latent übermensch aspirations and a rather lopsided sense of morality. The film’s opening sequence introduces us to Fabian lounging around a hip café among friends and former classmates, to whom he pontificates at length on the death of truth and meaning before borrowing a few thousand pesos for rent. He may call for “the destruction of anything that is inimical to morality,” as he loftily decries, but bills prove stubbornly resistant to the will of the ideologue. And what, given the circumstances, is a budding anarchist to do?
Well, given this story’s roots in Crime and Punishment, it ought to come as no surprise that murder soon becomes Fabian’s sole recourse, and he undertakes the transgression as though it were a moral imperative. Fabian believes it’s the responsibility of the new social order to eradicate its malignant exponents, which for him means driving a knife into the belly of a rotund pawnbroker to whom, perhaps not coincidentally, he happens to owe money. The gesture proves ineffectual. Fabian, though for once out of immediate debt, must flee to Manila and into the shadows of anonymity, where he lives out the next several years increasingly besieged by grief. His grievous misdeed, meanwhile, has been wrongfully attributed to Joaquin (Archie Alemania), a peddler of bootleg DVDs whose recent altercation with the deceased makes his guilt an apparent open-and-shut case. The machinations of the Philippine legal system summarily produce the inevitable result: Joaquin is convicted of murder and sentenced to life in the national prison, unjustly suffering the fate owed to the wayward political idealist.
All of this, by the way, takes place within the film’s first 90 minutes—and, with the bulk of the narrative duly dispatched, Norte is freed up to focus on the emotional consequences. There’s also a shift here, subtle but significant, in psychology and characterization: Early in the film, Diaz divides his leads predictably along opposing lines of class and disposition—Fabian immoral and privileged, Joaquin selfless and starving—until our sympathies align comfortably with the struggle of the latter. Joaquin’s incarceration has an immediate effect, frustrating our basic need for justice, for the gratifying karmic balance promised by drama. And as Fabian’s crisis shifts inward, toward a private turmoil, he’s pushed on toward the ever-unconscionable. Diaz refuses to soften him; he’s shrewd enough to allow Fabian’s judgment to come not from on high, but from out here, in the audience, where we can regard his actions as reprehensible and his attempts at atonement dubious. The moral framework established by this turn of events may seem somewhat simplistic (the essentially immoral thrive while good men arbitrarily suffer, and you’d better get used it), but as a reflection of and response to Philippine social reality, it’s hardly reductive. The situation warrants a certain simplicity: The world often is this unforgiving.
Which isn’t to say, of course, that Norte is without nuance. Its sheer breadth permits a level of detail and a degree of characterization unthinkable on a smaller scale. A 250-minute running time necessarily demands patience from an audience, but no less important is the patience of the filmmaker demanding it. This remains a specialty of Diaz’s: Interested less in a few major events than in the ongoing banality which surrounds them, he trains his camera on the quiet rhythms of unglamorous routine, lingering on his characters as they wearily go through the motions of another day. His long takes—often tracking or zooming toward their subject, so slowly the effect is almost imperceptible—sop up the detail of fully realized lives that, though punctured by tragedy, have to keep going. The film derives much of its effect from the passage of time. Diaz doesn’t just convey time, endurance, perseverance; he makes us feel them. Jail feels like a sentence. The guilt of freedom feels like jail. And history? The joke is that it never ends.