Noel Vera

Dostoevsky Variations

Dostoevsky has never been far from Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz’s mind. Crime and Punishment figures prominently in Diaz’s debut feature, The Criminal of Barrio Concepcion (98), with the quietly impressive Raymond Bagatsing playing a version of Raskolnikov as a kidnapper afflicted by a seriously inflamed toothache. Like a persistent poltergeist, Dostoevskian themes have haunted almost every Diaz film since, from the Regal Films production Jesus Revolutionary (02), in which a Raskolnikov-like figure becomes a political fugitive in the near future (i.e., 2011!), to his independently financed black-and-white projects of epic length. In Batang West Side (01) a police officer searches for a youth’s killer; in Death in the Land of Encantos (07) a onetime political prisoner confronts his former interrogator; in Melancholia (08) political fugitives seek redemption. Diaz has also borrowed characters from Dostoevsky’s other novels: The Idiot’s hapless Prince Mishkin in Heremias (Book One: The Legend of the Lizard Princess) (06) and in Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (12); The Brothers Karamazov’s malevolent Fyodor Karamazov in Burger Boys (99) and Florentina. At the very least, Dostoevsky has inspired the tone, attitude, and sensibility of Diaz’s films: the gravitas, the unflinching philosophical questioning, the melodramatic tendencies.

In Norte, the End of History (13) Fabian (Sid Lucero) is our brilliant yet alienated Raskolnikov and Magda (a wonderful Mae Paner) the avaricious pawnbroker Mrs. Ivanovna. Archie Alemania plays Joaquin, another of Magda’s clients, and while it’s not clear who his equivalent is in the novel, he’s as desperate as Fabian if not more so: he and his wife had planned to open a small diner but he has been disabled in an accident, sucking up their start-up capital.

The film’s first half feels like a direct transposition to a Philippine setting: Fabian is a top-notch law student who has dropped out for vague reasons, which hasn’t stopped him from eloquently and endlessly debating with friends and former professors. Like Raskolnikov, Fabian believes in a sentiment-hating, results-oriented, vaguely Nietzschean philosophy; like Raskolnikov, he longs to put his philosophy into practice in the most radical way possible: by killing an utterly irredeemable (in his mind anyway) human being, the heartless Magda, and stealing her money. The deed done, the film takes a quietly sharp turn: the false accusation of Joaquin replaces Dostoevsky’s relentless manhunt; and Fabian’s existential and at one point self-destructive quest is substituted for Raskolnikov’s desperate evasion of the authorities.

Why the departure? One can’t be sure—I suspect even Diaz couldn’t say—but one can hazard a few guesses.

After the murder Dostoevsky introduces Detective Petrovich, like Raskolnikov a student of human nature and possibly his only intellectual equal. Petrovich is no Dirty Harry; instead of a gun he’d rather fire off questions in an ingratiating manner, allowing people to hang themselves with their own line of reasoning—a brilliantly entertaining gimmick and an influential one, as arguably every fictional detective from Hercule Poirot to Columbo might demonstrate. But is the character realistic? More to the point, is the overtly comical, covertly subversive genius investigator convincing in a Filipino setting?

Diaz, with input from Raymond Lee, Michiko Yamamoto, and, most significantly, playwright Rody Vera decided to drop Dostoevsky’s psychological cat-and-mouse game and offer up a more plausible scenario: a man wrongfully accused, convicted, and incarcerated for life. The omniscience, intellect, and apparent implausibility of a Petrovich is swapped for the impassive impersonality of the Philippine prison system, and the suspense of a detective thriller supplanted by the more thoughtful tempo of a Diaz film.

Joaquin, as it turns out, is the film’s equivalent of Nikolai Dementiev, a member of a religious sect that believes in salvation through suffering for another’s crime. Diaz takes Dementiev’s minor episode in the novel, retools the character (subtracting the crackpot fanaticism, which he saves for someone else) and sets up his narrative as a counterpoint to Fabian’s, incorporating a short story by another great Russian writer, namely Tolstoy’s “God Sees the Truth, But Waits,” in which a man is wrongly exiled to Siberia for murder. Like Tolstoy’s Ivan Dmitrich Aksionov, Joaquin is basically a decent man; like Aksionov he’s beaten severely (tellingly Tolstoy emphasizes not the physical but the psychological toll of long internment: the shame, the sense of injustice, the prolonged separation from loved ones). Where Dostoevsky’s novel concentrated on one man, Diaz’s film is a study in contrast between a good man’s climb to redemption and a bad man’s descent into damnation.

Several corollary consequences: no one pursues Fabian/Raskolnikov; he is tormented only by his own moral sense, and as Diaz proceeds to demonstrate, there is no more relentless—and no more perverse—adversary. In the safety of his outsider status, in the privacy of his own alienation, Fabian’s behavior grows erratic, and even violently grotesque bordering on the monstrous. Every outrageous gesture only serves to suggest the enormity of the pain gnawing away inside. As he attempts to pay restitution for his crime, he is also punishing himself, his family, anything and anyone he cares for or cares for him. He finds himself engaged in a process of not just attempting to undo the impact of his wrongdoing, but attempting to undo his own impact on the whole world—erasing himself.

Joaquin is on an eerily similar course, but whereas Fabian determines his own direction, the only thing Joaquin can determine for himself is the complete and uncomplaining acceptance of every adverse circumstance with which life confronts him. Fabian is a living example of the unholiness of an upper class bereft of any kind of ethical or social compass; Joaquin, by contrast, epitomizes the unholy grip of that compass on the lower classes, inflicting on the human spirit the resilience to endure above and beyond what most would consider possible, desirable, or even sane. Diaz poses two questions: should man be totally free of restrictions? And should man be totally selfless and submissive?

Joaquin doesn’t just possess a purely good soul, he possesses an unbelievably good soul. But the conviction with which Alemania plays the character, the straightforward simplicity with which Diaz films his scenes, and the fact that people like Joaquin actually exist in the Philippine countryside allows us to accept the character (plus the sneaking suspicion that he’s a closet masochist). You meet people like Joaquin mostly outside of Manila—which I practically consider a lost cause. They represent an aspect of the Filipino character so extreme that it should be considered a flaw, a sainted quality that’s more infuriating than inspiring, more blight than benediction. Joaquin is a glutton for punishment every bit as much as Fabian is for meting out vengeance, and just as monstrous. But the course of his life will lead to a different—not necessarily better, not necessarily more hopeful—conclusion. Fabian, of course, is easier to accept—the Devil isn’t just more interesting, he’s often more convincing—but Diaz’s moral conception of the world would be unthinkable without Joaquin’s trajectory, just as Dante’s scheme for his Inferno would be incomplete without the next two books of his masterwork.

Thought of in these terms, the startling, seemingly random death that occurs near the end of the film actually seems more “organic” (a favorite Diaz term). Neither man is really capable of changing his character. Racked by guilt, Fabian doesn’t embrace redemption, he can only respond according to his nature, with anger and self-hatred; if he attempts to help Joaquin, it’s more to restore an imbalance—a readjustment to bring them both to more or less the same low level—than out of any love for God or his fellow man, and definitely not out of fear for his soul (which he subsequently and irredeemably damns). Joaquin can only take it and take it and take it, and he’ll accept news of this fresh tragedy (Diaz doesn’t even have to show it) with the same unceasing resignation, struggling on the best he can. Both men are in Hell.

Fabian isn’t just Raskolnikov; he’s also former Philippine President Ferdinand E. Marcos. Diaz made it a point to film Norte in Marcos’s hometown (Paoay, in the Ilocos Norte province). Like Fabian, Marcos was a brilliant law student who committed murder when younger. Marcos, however, was tried and convicted, then argued his own appeal and won an acquittal while still studying for the Philippine Bar Exams (for which he achieved the highest score). As Fabian makes clear in his discourses with friends and professors, he, like Marcos, admires competence, the ability to take decisive action against perceived evil. Fabian at one point openly professes his admiration for Marcos, declaring the former president as having been on the right track when it came to fighting Communism (he only got distracted in his later years). The parallels couldn’t be clearer.

That said, Fabian and Joaquin’s roles in the film aren’t entirely those of villainous and virtuous, victimizer and victim—Diaz doesn’t seem to want to think entirely in those terms. Fabian may embody upper-class decadence and arrogance (we’re special; we’re meant to act, to rise, to rule) but at the same time he’s an intellectual like Diaz, sharing the filmmaker’s contempt for Filipino inanities and social failings. Diaz’s camera gazes unflinchingly, leaving it to us to judge Fabian, but there are moments here and there where you suspect Diaz sympathizes with him: when his friends spout clichés, you root for him to shoot down their arguments; when Fabian’s sister Hoda (Miles Canapi) inflicts her relentlessly cheerful religious chatter on him (the fanaticism of Dostoevsky’s Dementiev transplanted to another character to interesting effect), you wait for him to snap. Conversely it’s easier to love Joaquin—member of the heroic proletariat Diaz has championed in all his films—but there are times when you feel the director (seemingly channeling Fabian) growing weary of his martyrdom. Having imbued the characters with aspects of both himself and people he knows, is it any wonder that Diaz loves them and loathes them to varying degrees?

Diaz’s own career seems to take after his characters, wandering restlessly over the Filipino landscape. After Evolution of a Filipino Family (04), which traces three families across most of recent Filipino history, Diaz narrowed his focus to an almost claustrophobia-inducing degree, following one man in his quest to save a woman’s life in Heremias. His films have always betrayed a bleak sensibility but only with Death in the Land of Encantos has he found a fitting landscape for that bleakness—the region had just been devastated by typhoon, and the overturned trees, mud-flooded fields, and crumpled houses became an apt met-aphor for the characters’ interior lives. Melancholia, Diaz’s most overtly political film to date, deals with dissident fugitives trying to recover from the trauma of torture and of life on the run through a radical form of therapy in which they roleplay different characters in society in an attempt to engender a sense of normalcy, purpose, and release.

With these brief synopses one might have the impression that Diaz’s is a cinema of melodrama, full of violence and suffering, and that’s partly correct. Diaz doesn’t turn away from violence and suffering, at most refusing to close in and follow it, but he strips away the tumult as if trying to catch something that’s barely audible. Exactly what that is, Diaz is reluctant to say (it’s as if he were afraid he might frighten it off): an individual’s core consciousness, a man’s innermost spirit—the soul, maybe?

The film in which the faint fluttering cry of the soul (or spirit, or consciousness) is expressed most clearly is Diaz’s Florentina Hubaldo, CTE. The premise is heartrending enough, and embedded in the title: “CTE” stands for chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain condition that is eventually fatal, caused by repeated blows to the head and often found in football players who’ve been tackled once too often and boxers who have lost one too many bouts. Diaz firmly resists any suggestion or hint of melodrama in the portrayal of Florentina (Hazel Orencio, in what may be the role of her life). When she cries out and struggles, Diaz’s camera just sets down and gazes impassively—there will be no rescue for this girl, no last-minute salvation. Her only respite is through fantasy, through visions of gaudily clothed papier-mâché giants dancing around her—which may be merely another symptom of her brain’s deterioration or her one consistently successful act of imaginative defiance and transcendence.

It’s perhaps due to the lurid premise that Diaz’s glancing, painfully attenuated storytelling style feels so energized, the filmmaker having given the film an initial jolt of horror and then left the whole ungainly construct to fall apart and collapse into itself, like a kinetic sculpture working itself out on the big screen. It’s Diaz’s most potent metaphor yet, the Philippines as a continually victimized woman whose injuries are so severe she passes them on to succeeding generations: Diaz struggles to control the metaphor and subsume it into his oblique form of storytelling, and just barely succeeds; the film’s power comes from this struggle.

With Norte Diaz has come full circle, from borrowing elements of the character of Raskolnikov for The Criminal of Barrio Concepcion to adapting the novel directly (although how directly isn’t easy to answer, actually). The new film feels like a capstone, a summation of everything Diaz loves about and finds so profound in Dostoevsky, a transmutation of the writer’s melodramatic genius into grist for his more distanced, more emotionally chilled films.

It’s also, I think, a kind of farewell. In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov is confronted by his sister Dounia and by Sonya, and between them they halt his spiraling descent. Diaz provides no such safety net for Fabian: he’s with a woman for a while, and then forgets her; he goes to his sister Hoda, who, like Dounia, is intensely religious, and—well, let’s just say Diaz doesn’t seem to think either love or faith are the answers to life’s problems, or at least to Fabian’s. Joaquin makes a somewhat more persuasive case for salvation with his Sonya-like wife Eliza (the quietly wonderful Angeli Bayani), but they don’t come out much better in the end either.

The answer isn’t really articulated in the film. Diaz poses the same questions as Dostoevsky, yet he goes on to question Dostoevsky’s text, picking it apart as he goes, until there doesn’t seem to be anything left, at which point he simply stops dead. Norte ends, as so many Diaz films do, in stasis and with little resolved, as if he has not so much failed to find an answer as despaired of ever finding one. Unlike with his other films, with Norte I can see Diaz stopping and giving up filmmaking. The sense of finality is more than a little unsettling, as if even his beloved Dostoevsky (of whose Crime he once declared “there are no flaws to that great novel”) isn’t enough to keep him going.

I’m overreacting, I’m sure; next year Diaz will probably come out with yet another epic-length digital-video effort, perhaps yet another Dostoevskian meditation on morality and violence (I’m still waiting for part two of Heremias, myself), and we’ll continue chasing Diaz’s elusive little rabbit down its hole. But for now this is all we have, and it certainly looks like a terminal point—or at the very least some kind of turning point. What happens next we’ll just have to wait and see.