At one point in the film, during a conversation with his elder sister, Fabian, the intelligent but troubled law student in Lav Diaz’ 4-hour opus “Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan” (shown recently at Trinoma Cinema), made an assertion that whatever it is that is dysfunctional in a society – the family included – should be eliminated. This is in fact a reiteration of what the young man pointed out earlier in the film, during a drinking chat with his fellow students, that for our society to move forward, all the bad people – the filth and scums, if we’re going to ask “Taxi Driver’s” Travis Bickle – should just simply be killed off. This core idea of the film is outrightly provocative and terrifying. In a modern society that is primarily held in check by law and order, it practically gives man the license to become beasts and vigilantes, allowing free rein to his bestial nature and capacity for violence. Yet, for all the danger inherent in the film’s core philosophy, it strangely never spills out of the screen, threatening to overwhelm or disorient the viewers. In fact, “Norte”, in its myriad workings, unfolds like a blessed spiritual pilgrimage, an acute psychological probing, a complex ethical question, a dense multi-chapter novel and a majestic work of art, akin to a painting.
Such is one of the invaluable rewards and pleasures of cinema:we get to encounter films that transport us to a wholly different level of experience, or that are an experience itself. And “Norte” is one such film – or experience. I remember making a similar claim in regards “Batang West Side”, an earlier opus by Diaz. Now, I just found myself giving the same accolade to the former, another Diaz film. I also remember remarking before that after “Batang West Side”, I had to find out if the director’s succeeding works would measure up to the high precedent that it set. “Siglo ng Pagluluwal”, sad to say, was such a downer for me. In “Norte”, however, I found a work that would equal, if not surpass, the feat of his 5-hour masterpiece.
Perhaps, “Norte” could not have been the sterling achievement that it is if not because of its screenplay. Penned both by the director himself and acclaimed theater playwright Rody Vera (who also wrote another excellent Filipino film last year, Chito Rono’s “Badil”), the script is a marvel in itself. In spite of its underlying grand and bold themes, the film has the unique discipline of saying less of its ideas and making its characters more human. Or put in another way, by saying less of its ideas, the film just made its characters more human. It completely shies away from abstractions and meanderings, which is what makes it more superior than “Siglo” and much closer to “Batang West Side”. The novel on which the film was loosely based, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” is a bold work in itself, with its main protagonist Raskolnikov, also a morose intellectual, brutally murdering his vicious landlady just to prove the Nietzschean idea of the “Uberman”. Though compelling, it is not an easy read, a work characterized by lengthy monologues and self-ruminations and a provocative exposition of its philosophical and psychological insights. But the affinity just stops there.
Similar to the trait displayed in “Badil”, Vera’s screenplay utilizes mood and restraint, relying more on the wealth of emotions that the characters harbor within themselves and savoring even the littlest details of their seemingly mundane and trivial daily life routine. Even when Fabian (portrayed by Sid Lucero, in an arresting performance) starts to explicate his unsettling ruminations, it just “stops” at a point so as not to become meandering and expository, but to be cryptic and enigmatic enough. It’s like the viewers are given enough room to mine and think through the ideas themselves. Even during those moments wherein Joaquin and Elisa (portrayed as husband and wife respectively by Archie Alemania, in a revelatory and quietly effective performance, and Angeli Bayani who, as always, is wonderful) begin to pour out their emotions, it is just contained enough to avoid the pitfall of bathos. The viewers are drawn to the core of their being but, amazingly, with distance enough so as not to become too “nosey” in their lives. The film, then, more than an intellectual exercise, becomes a dialectical experience.
If “Batang West Side” has the feel of an Andrei Tarkovsky film, “Norte”, this time around, closely resembles the mood and texture of the works of another European filmmaker, Bruno Dumont (“Life of Jesus”, “Humanity”, “Flanders”, “Outside Satan”). Both in the film’s considerably “shock” moments and seemingly “mundane” events, there’s a Dumont feel to it. It’s like the placid surface is a mere reservoir of a stormy brew of ideas and emotions. My main beef against “Siglo” is its excessive indulgence – the seemingly lack of clue as to when to actually stop in its elucidation and execution – and its unabashed abstraction – its unforgiving regard of its characters as a mere hollow of theories and concepts. In “Norte”, I just don’t see such unnecessary longueurs and idealized characterizations (again, a trait that it shares with “Batang West Side”). In fact with this film, the director has acquired a truly admirable discipline, no doubt immensely helped by a great screenwriter. Every set piece, every mise-en-scene, even those brief moments (yes, there are!) just feel integral to the whole, no moment wasted. Its Kieslowskian narrative structure of intertwining lives, subtly and deftly shown onscreen, rather than confusing and putting the viewers at a loss, makes them all the more engaged. The effect is more enriching than confounding.
More than a technical virtuosity (the color cinematography, the editing, the production and sound design), “Norte” is a triumph of philosophy. Which brings us to the film’s core ideas. A nation marred by a century-long history of violence, betrayals and failures;a society steeped in apathy, disillusionment and indifference;a collective future that holds no promise, murky and unstable at best;and a troubled character who braves all odds to materialize his lethal theories, with no small cost. I profess to be no expert academician or lofty intellectual to give my valid take or propound on these concepts. Thus, allow me to just say this:If in “Batang West Side”, the filmmaker undertakes an insightful examination of his nation’s troubled past, with a probable goal of coming to terms with it, in “Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan”, he seems to have given in to his nation’s present state, placing a piercing yet disaffectionate spotlight on the things that ail and trouble it, now just resigned to what the future may bring. It’s like a complete surrender. Just like Joaquin when he helplessly watches a fellow inmate being mercilessly beaten by a senior inmate. Just like Elisa when she quietly views a raging inferno from afar. Just like Fabian when twice (or thrice) that he willingly gives in to the murderous allure of his thoughts.
And that, it goes without saying, is more dangerous.
After taking the route of numerous film festivals abroad (beginning at the prestigious Cannes film fest in May last year), we are glad that “Norte” finally comes home. It is such an important and astonishing piece of filmmaking. A telling illustration of the power of the moving image to challenge and perhaps change our prevailing mode of thoughts and actions. And we Filipinos, more than anyone else, deserve such fine art.