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By Boris Nelepo
Nothing is true. Morals are dead. There are no more laws. The end of history is nigh. So says Fabian (Sid Lucero), a law-school dropout who sees no point in legislation in a world devoid of reason. Permanently in debt, he whiles away the hours gabbing and griping about the humiliation his home country has to face now, invoking, by way of contrast, the late 1890s Philippine Revolution against the Spanish spearheaded by Andrés Bonifacio––first executed, along with his brother (see Raya Martin’s 2007 Autohystoria), and later lionized as a national hero. The enraged youth pleads for an awakening of his docile society, issuing, in essence, a call to arms, and proceeds to borrow money from a mean, obese loan shark, a woman seriously drunk on power. But what’s more powerful than money? How about a knife? After stabbing the loan shark to death, Fabian doesn’t hesitate to kill her sweet-spoken teenage daughter while he’s at it.
Shortly before the murder, the late moneylender was visited by Joaquin (Archie Alemania), a DVD peddler, whose wife, Eliza (Angeli Bayani), has pawned one of her rings. When Joaquin’s entreaties to return the ring prove futile, he flies into a rage and tries to strangle the woman, only to come to his senses a moment later and flee. The police, however, are happy to have an open-and-shut case on their hands: Joaquin is sentenced to life without parole. As time wears on, Eliza still sells fresh produce and raises her children, while Fabian moves to another town in an attempt to find his true vocation as a member of a cult. Divested now of his own name and dubbed Rotten Tooth by his cellmates, Joaquin fashions Christmas lanterns in jail and sympathizes with anyone in need of sympathy, even if it’s the notorious sadist, Wakwak (Soliman Cruz). Malicious gossip has it that Joaquin is hoping for presidential clemency, but once the holidays come around he will be graced by a much higher power. Merry Christmas, Mr. Wakwak.
Lav Diaz’s twelfth feature is his first Cannes entry: the festival has finally acknowledged the existence of a filmmaker who is wholly unique in the current cinematic landscape. It is also his first venture into colour in 11 years: as a result, Diaz’s visual splendour is now all the more striking and vivid. Weighing in at a laconic four hours and ten minutes (a short by Diaz’s opulent standards), the tight story of Norte, the End of History manages to address most of the director’s motifs. For starters, the premise itself refers to Dostoevsky, Diaz’s favourite writer, whose works he loosely adapted for the screen in his debut, The Criminal of Barrio Concepcion (1998), a film that opens with an epigraph from Crime and Punishment. Named after one of Dostoevsky’s characters, Lav (Lavrente) Diaz has sustained a great interest in the Russian novelist throughout his career.
In his saintliness, Joaquin reminds us of two of Diaz’s martyrs, Heremias and Florentina. The protagonist in Heremias: Book One––The Legend of the Lizard Princess (2006) challenges heavens as he demands that God manifest His existence; he pleads for his sacrifice to be accepted, willing to fast for 40 days straight to save the life of an innocent girl (Diaz has yet to make good on the sequel that he has promised). In no way an iconoclast, Joaquin, conversely, does not defy God, and humbly withstands the hardship he feels he deserves for the violent outburst that almost resulted in a murder.
In Norte’s predecessor, the subtle and beautiful Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012), Diaz employed voiceover, a technique he had never resorted to before (or, at least, used rarely), to articulate the eternal quandry: what is evil, and how does it arise in man? In this technique, I believe, lies an honest exposure of his method, the method of the only working filmmaker to explore such fundamental categories of the human condition as Truth, Kindness, Morality, Sin, Justice, Nation, History, and God. (All capitalized, contrary to the prevalent ironies of the 2000s). Always solemn but never turgid, Diaz juxtaposes the intellectual and the common man in Norte with peerless elegance, which has the effect of toning down what might otherwise be portentous rhetoric, and elevating his storytelling above the level of cliché. On the other hand, the very same solemnity is what clearly prevented Diaz from fitting in with this year’s Cannes line-up, riddled as it was by convention, conformism, and triviality. An endangered species, Diaz makes a point to treat cinema as a complex, multifaceted art form in which sensual, intellectual, and sacred experiences are inextricably linked.
In an interview, Diaz professed to me in the most unequivocal terms, “I have a pack of issues about metaphysics in the relation to my cultural experience, the Filipino way of looking at the concept of God, the existence of God—it binds all my works together because it’s my culture.” While drawing from the same tropes and exercising the same sparse style, Diaz’s films, on closer inspection, reveal profound differences, thus keeping the viewer on the lookout for the ruptures in his ostensible realism penetrated, all of a sudden, by stray gusts of the ineffable. Such transitions into the mystic are always mirrored in a change of the camera angle, as the distance established by impersonal long shots closes in abruptly to give way to a POV shot, which, granted, envelopes the audience in the fabric of the film, but serves much more extravagant purposes as well. Through the character’s eyes, a whole new dimension is introduced, permitting folktales to leach into the plotlines, lending the gorgeous landscapes a pantheistic flair, and enabling genuine visions rather than mere points of view.
Employing unorthodox running times, Diaz normally assumes full control over the temporality of his films that he feels free to “write” like one would a treatise. In following his characters in their daily routines, Diaz allocates ample time for their mannerisms to grow familiar, and for mundane conversations to unfold unhindered as he traces the minutest transformations in the characters’ selves––a crucial aspect of his filmmaking, since Diaz has a most keen eye for maladjustment, and often chooses to hone in on humans thrust out of their element. In the wake of the murder he has committed, Fabian slowly sheds his human skin, unable to carry the load foisted upon him. As he loses touch with the outside world, his body crumbles, too, and his gaze begins to glaze over; Wakwak the monster undergoes a similar process when his physical presence thins out little by little, his bodily functions no longer efficient. Diaz never fails to underscore moral tribulations with physiological disturbances.
An angry narrative by any definition, Norte portrays a country accursed, whose curse, by extension, spills over onto its people; around this curse, furthermore, the backstories of two families weave a subplot of marked importance. In order to prove that their family was doomed to fail from the start, Fabian torments his sister at the end of the movie (the girl is also in a cult, which seems to be a common practice among Filipinos: see Century of Birthing ). Their parents, as it turns out, had moved to the US, leaving the kids in the care of hired help. Joaquin’s wife blames his subsequent misfortunes on herself for not letting him work abroad. Rejecting those who have left, the country is twice as harsh on those who have stayed, a theme Diaz has developed before, particularly in Butterflies Have No Memories (2009). Operating in a more allegorical register than usual, Diaz first guides us through the degrees of sin, from a petty transgression (Fabian sleeps with his best friend’s girlfriend) to the ultimate wrongdoing (murder); then looks into how the nation’s moral bankruptcy is reflected in one family’s decline; and then, concludes with a disaster––The End of History, indeed.
Diaz never shies away from the many dangers of the present-day Philippines. Set in a land not for the faint of heart, his stories habitually deal with theft, murder, and rape, yet the violence he strives to trace to its root is neither graphic nor gratuitous––more often than not, the violent episodes themselves are actually pushed offscreen. Perfectly capable of reaching his audience in a subtler manner, Diaz refuses to stoop to sensationalism and sends, instead, his camera panning across the fields, rivers, and jungle thickets, cementing the uneasy feel of someone invisible surveying his domain. So, when Joaquin at last ascends to the realm of angels and becomes one himself, the viewer can’t help but wonder if Diaz has mustered the audacity to show us what God––for lack of a better word––sees.