At a coffee shop, idealist Fabian (Sid Lucero) discusses to his former law professors his idea of an ideal setup of government and/or society. His professors, regretful of Fabian not having finished law school, listen in on his ideas, however absurd. Outside, a woman is bleeding to death on the sidewalk.
And there begins Lav Diaz’s four-hour treatise of man and society- establishing his basic premise of instituting change in social conditions through his idealist intellectual antihero Fabian, who may seem at first like the modern hero the country badly needs.
We see Fabian bitch about history and society, and how Filipinos have come to bastardize history, from his disdain of the revisionists seeking to glamorize Emilio Aguinaldo as a hero of the revolution, to the endless cycle of corruption in present government. He even mentions of Machiavelli, whose principle of “the end justifies the means” will be the core of NORTE, and the merits of which shall be put to the ultimate test.
Enter the vicious pawnbroker Magda (Mae Paner), the personification of capitalism down to the last strand of her hair. She is the go-to person in times of financial trouble. People have no difficulty borrowing money from her, but her payment schemes are so tough that her debtors end up losing a lot more than what they bargained for, like couple Joaquin (Archie Alemania) and Eliza (Angeli Bayani) who has to turn over their raw materials for their supposed eatery business to Magda, in partial payment for their debt following Joaquin’s accident.
Fabian is also one of those under the clutches of Magda, and one time when he can no longer take the injustice committed before his eyes, he does the unspeakable.
Sure, it would have benefited society having one less evil person, but Diaz confronts us with the moral dilemma of whether or not the killing of one person is justifiable if it serves a higher purpose.
Such act led to two unforeseen circumstances: first, the unexpected death of a second victim. Second, the arrest and incarceration of the wrong man (Joaquin) who was tagged as the suspect simply because of a previous quarrel with the deceased.
Eventually, both circumstances resulted in a similar outcome- the loss of innocence for both Fabian and Joaquin. The latter will have a harsh reeducation on man’s brutish nature inside the penitentiary, yet unwavering in his humility, while the former will be forever transformed as an agent of darkness.
Of all this pondering on crime and punishment, the real victims are those who are the innocent, whose only crime is poverty, or the lack of opportunity, or simply bad luck. The film posits that in this country, it seems that the downtrodden remain downtrodden. So what solution should be offered then? Diaz moves us to remember history and its lessons.
Among the characters in the film, most unnerving is Fabian- brilliantly-drawn and neatly-constructed by Diaz and Rody Vera (who share writing credits) and superbly played with no-nonsense by Sid Lucero. Fabian may be the ideal modern antihero, a man who wouldn’t accept any bullshit, who would shove the truth right down your throat, without pretensions or euphemism. He would go where the ordinary person wouldn’t, yet he remains human, at least for most of the film, still able to feel sorrow, or regret, or pity for his unwitting victims. However, no amount of money or apology maybe the equivalent of a human life, and Fabian remains a character of self-righteousness, who cannot admit to his fault.
Later in the film, where he reunites with his elder sister Hoda (Mailes Kanapi, in yet another topnotch performance), Fabian crosses the point of no return. In order for him to be the agent of destruction, he needs to sever all ties with his humanity. For this portion alone, the film is worth seeing (and repeating).
Meanwhile, Alemania’s sublime attack on his good-natured character Joaquin is equal parts inspiring and heart-wrenching.
See the film also for an inspired performance from character actor Soliman Cruz, who here plays a hardened inmate named Wakwak. Cruz just steals the limelight and owns the film for the brief duration of his onscreen presence. Hazel Orencio, who plays Ading, the sister to Angeli Bayani’s Eliza draws empathy for the doomed plight of her character’s family. Even Kristine Kintana as the help to Mae Paner’s Magda is hilariously entertaining, despite her very limited dialogue.
In the end, there is no point at all, as what Diaz may want to tell us. So what has all our fighting been for but futile resistance? If we do nothing, nothing changes. If we do something extraordinary, shit happens, but then nothing really ever changes as social paradigm is concerned. Diaz cautions us to the dangers of rash actions, which often leads to irreparable damage, not only to human lives, but also to one’s humanity.
Fueled by strong performances from its seasoned cast, and told in a relaxed but disquieting manner that slowly lingers on the senses even after seeing it, NORTE: HANGGANAN NG KASAYSAYAN (NORTE: THE END OF HISTORY) becomes an instant classic about a small-town injustice that mirrors the everyday injustice Filipinos encounter on a macro scale. Moreso, it also serves as a character deconstruction of the ideal protagonist, and how he is also riddled with imperfections.