How do you end a world consumed by its own corruption? In Lav Diaz’s Norte: Hangganan ng Kasaysayan, Fabian (Sid Lucero), a law school dropout, sees no point in continuing the morality imposed by societal conventions on a dying civilization. Fabian goes on to ramble about his philosophy to his professors — the coffee shop they’re in being the most innocuous venue for such discussion — how the negation of truth and everything society perceives as “wrong” is also an act of liberation in itself. After minutes of discussion, he then proceeds to borrow rent money from his audience. Fabian postulates his ideations as somewhat that of a radical’s, someone who is drunk on the power of living, enough to put his own theories to their own destructive course.
It is here that Diaz freely plays with Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment — the Russian author being a life-long obsession in Diaz’s filmography — transposing the Russian psychological warfare into the dust of a third-world setting. Fabian is Raskolnikov, Dostoyevski’s handsome dilettante whose loathing towards normalcy and ethics is the spark that sets off an upheaval of another world. High on the sway of his own call to arms, Fabian goes on to murder his pawnbroker (Mae Paner, devoid of her Juana Change contraptions) and her daughter, launching into ruin not only of his own but of another parallel universe. In Norte, the fall is taken by Joaquin (Archie Alemania, far from his comedic comfort zone), a DVD peddler accused of the pawnbroker’s murder, his ties to her include a mountain of debt and a short burst of a tantrum after she refused to return his wife’s pawned ring.
Fabian goes on about his life as if the act of killing is a necessary recourse of existence. He further isolates himself from the rest of the world, even from his closest friends. Joaquin’s family, on the other hand, suffers from the shattered life they are consigned to living. Joaquin’s wife, Eliza (the quietly powerful Angeli Bayani), tries to make ends meet, selling vegetables in a rickety cart around their town while Joaquin desperately lives his saintly disposition inside the prison, never crossing boundaries and keeping his mouth shut if needed. This is a set-up for a dreary exposition into squalor and defeat, but Diaz, never one to indulge in such games, opts instead to steer his four-hour film (which runs like breeze even for a millennial attention span) into an astonishing study of madness and its accompanying instruments.
Norte is Diaz’s first film in color for over a decade, and his first working with material co-written by another playwright, Rody Vera. The film still bears Diaz’s distinctive mark, its blood coursing through familiar themes that the filmmaker has closely explored in his career. Norte only occupies a unique place in his filmography, being his first Cannes Film Festival entry and one of his most lauded films to date, landing on top yearend critics list such as Sight and Sound, Artforum, Sense of Cinema, and La Internacional Cinéfila.
Praised for its epic scope and intimate look at the lives caught in time’s undertow, Norte offers up a relevant response to how our country has gradually been victim to our crimes, even those that we commit to the ones we hold dear.
“Sumpa ang mabuhay, Joaquin. Dahil hindi natin hawak ang buhay,” a character ominously proclaims, the specter of death hanging like a palpable scent in the air the characters breathe in. Norte is never happy, despite the stark blue of the skies that follows its characters. Its novel-like length gives Diaz the freedom to explore his characters in more detail, allowing high-caliber actors such as Lucero, Alemania, Bayani, and the ever-reliable Mailes Kanapi, as Fabian’s Bible-thumping sister, to sink their teeth deeper into the turmoil. That Diaz’s direction allows his actors to roam freely into their characters’ psyche adds only to the film’s rattling thrum — the sound that echoes with the fury of our cries.