Michel Lipkes’ 2011 movie Malaventura runs 66 minutes and can feel like an eternity. Lav Diaz’s Norte, the End of History, runs 250 minutes, and it too, can feel like an eternity. But you know that old saying, not all eternities are created equal.
Lipkes’ movie comes out of the “slow cinema” tradition, and its examination of an elderly Mexican man’s final day on Earth can be a very rough experience. But Diaz’s movie, though presenting arguably more difficult material, presents so many subtle variations of colour, and so many arresting moments, that you can forget the length and become wrapped up in the simple epic that unfolds. The four hours do not exactly fly by, but I suspect you won’t find yourself looking at your watch very often.
That is in part due to the creative structure that Diaz employs. More on that in a moment. First, though, I need to admit that though length serves a purpose in Norte, Diaz is prone to going overboard. The movie almost certainly had to last more than three hours in order to achieve its particular rhythms. But it did not have to run more than four. Case in point. The second shot in the movie (which also constitutes the second scene in the movie) shows one of the main characters, Fabian, working at the computer in his cramped dwelling on the outskirts of the austere Filipino province of Luzon. The following shot shows Fabian standing at his window, framed so that his head is out of sight. He will then move back to the computer and resume typing. It would seem Diaz could have easily begun this scene with the more arresting shot of Fabian at the window (he is often framed with part of his body obscured or out of frame, which serves as a good metaphor for his semi-detachment from the world) and cut out several minutes of him sitting at the computer. Similar edits were possible throughout the movie but Diaz seems intent on stretching things to their breaking point.
The plot of Norte… takes off from Crime and Punishment. Fabian, a young, highly educated, self-styled radical, asserts the need for a new version of moral culture, one in which evil is immediately and harshly dispatched. When his friends challenge him on his beliefs, he decides to act and visit punishment on one of those he considers evil. His actions are a sham, and they have disastrous results. An innocent ends up dead, and another innocent ends up punished. Fabian goes off to deal with his shaken beliefs. In the end he returns to his society to essentially complete his task. Whether “completion” means he will take responsibility or will tear everything to the ground is what investing four hours will reveal. I won’t spoil the surprise.
Diaz uses a fascinating structure to reveal his story. As near as I can tell, he models this, admittedly loosely, on a symphonic template. The film has four roughly equal sections, or movements. The first is a lively allegro in which Fabian and his friends engage in debate about Filipino history and political philosophy. We get introduced to the parallel plotline (or motif) of the poor young couple Eliza and Joaquin who are struggling to make ends meet. But the clear dominant voice in this movement belongs to Fabian, full of youthful idealism and energy. That all comes to a crescendo at the end of the first hour when Fabian commits his crime.
We then get the slowest section of the film, barely even an adagio, which features almost no dialogue. This section focuses more on Eliza and Joaquin and the tragedy they must endure. This is a visually beautiful section, and Fabian nearly driven mad by his guilt, appears at various points, no longer full of his pride and certainty. This movement concludes with one of the most emotionally tense moments put on film this past year, as Eliza contemplates the bleak future she and her children face. Two hours into the movie, a point at which most current movies are rolling credits, Diaz kicks his story into another gear.
The third hour may not be a minuet, but it does contain the most movement of any section. Up until this point, Diaz has rarely moved his camera. Involved tracking shots have essentially been used to delineate the movements. But here, the camera begins moving more freely, in a sense, dancing with the subjects. Characters begin talking more, and there is even a rather brutal fight scene. It is the most visually lively section to this point. For those who don’t think much of my symphonic metaphor, this section also presents the real uplifting heart of the film as Joaquin begins to transcend an unjust world and find peace through kindness and compassion. Fabian is totally absent from this section.
But he returns in a major way for the final movement. If you compare the pacing of Norte to a standard Hollywood movie, the final hour will continue to seem slow. But compared to what has come before, it is downright prestissimo. Fabian brings volcanic eruptions. There are fights. There are arguments. There is symbolic violence. In the end … well, as I said before, you will need to watch to see whether the world has been restored or blown to pieces. The only hint I will give you is that the final haunting shot suggests those two extremes may not be mutually exclusive.
If that feels too cryptic for your tastes, I’ll offer one other, more concrete observation. Norte… presents several acts of great violence. Some are committed by Fabian, but Joaquin and a brutish character named Wakwak aren’t above getting rough. But Joaquin and Wakwak commit their acts of violence in full view of the camera. Fabian is always shadowed or hidden. It becomes clear that Joaquin and Wakwak have a much clearer and more honest understanding of who they are. Fabian, smarter than anyone in the movie (we are repeatedly told this) is also self-delusional and cowardly. He looks around and doesn’t like what he sees. What he fails to realise is that he is in fact the most destructive force in the story.
Norte, the End of History is a beautiful film. It boasts strong acting, especially from Angeli Bayani as Eliza. Film fans can see it as a grand alternative to fast-paced video-game spectacle that is so common in Western movies circa 2014. Literature fans can consider how it departs from Dostoevsky. Music fans can have fun shooting holes in my symphony analysis. And fans of human drama can marvel at the simple story of simple people writ so large. Who knows, if you make it through Diaz’s 250 minutes, you might be ready for Lipkes’ 66.