During the intermission for Norte, The End of History, the fellow next to me mused that during the first scene, the wife could be seen wandering around in the background. He had a keen eye he was eager to show off, and at this point I felt like I’d just walked out of a test and into a crowd of people boasting about the answers that I’d apparently already gotten wrong. It’s not uncommon to walk out of a Lav Diaz film and feel this way; his films are imposing and broad and obstinate and rough, but also beautiful, and endlessly gratifying for those who allow him into their minds. For only his second foray into the world of cinematic colour, he operates like a master; the world is so vibrant and powerful that his being known for long-winded black-and-white arduous works seems absurd. Watching Lav Diaz on the big screen is an entirely different experience to seeing his work cramped and crowded on a computer; it’s one of the grandest cinema experiences I’ve ever had. It was a cold and rainy day here at the Leeds International Film Festival, as they all fatalistically tend to be, but still the turnout was impressively big for this voluble 4-hour film about Filipino sociopolitical problems, and there wasn’t a single walkout, so here’s to bladders everywhere.
Diaz has always been a tenacious director with regards to his filmmaking approach, carving each of his films into epics that sometimes broach the likes of 11-hour runtimes. In Norte, the 4-hour runtime is comparatively short and unimposing in comparison and marks for a fine entry point for those new to him. Those unacquainted with the director’s works will still be prone to the same suspicious and scornful eyes they always had toward his formidable cinema, and I won’t blame them for it, but here’s hoping a few of my fellow audience members changed their minds as this film drew them in.
The narrative circles Fabian and Joaquin, two lost souls who never meet but whose paths are intertwined in ways that neither can articulate nor comprehend. Fabian incessantly preaches ideologies “worse than fundamentalism,” relentlessly abhors the state of the Filipino, and dictates with admonishing cadence that this is the end of history. Upon finally enacting his unscripted, long-desired method of social justice, the ignorant and perhaps deserved victim of Fabian’s rage is seemingly the only obese Filipino in existence. But poor old Fabian planned little for the aftermath, as the enactment of his dogmas bring no comfort to his world; the guilt and burden soon amass and burst throughout his body. Joaquin is a mostly mild-mannered philanthropist and father of two. He bares the brunt of Fabian’s malevolent transgressions and takes the unjust downward spiral for him. Diaz alludes to Fabian being a product of a poor upbringing more than once, which becomes doubly interesting in that his actions have directly caused a new pair of children, brother and sister, to grow up without parents within the same circumstances he lived and abhorred. As Fabian descends into his burning soul, Joaquin ascends to almost complete altruism, sympathizing and connecting with all in the new life that was forced upon him, officers and inmates and monkeys, with even those who do not deserve his kindness. “Forgive me”, his virulent inmate overlord asks him.
In the end Diaz goes full Weerasethakul, or full Dumont as others have noted, lathering the enigmatic “divine justices” into the heart of it all, lifting pieces up and laying others to rest, constructing something entirely different to anything he’s done before, something entirely welcomed and unquestionably curious and utterly hypnotic. This is the first time in a long time I’ve walked out of a 4-hour film and immediately wanted to watch it again. And by the looks of the others at my screening as they silently ambled onto the streets, they felt similarly.
It’s unquestionably a strange and enchanting experience. It lacks the intermittent elongated languid downtime that many of Diaz’s previous endeavors have and feels all the better for it. I’m not one to shy away from Diaz’s soporific tendencies, but here is an optimum level of tranquility and peril, magnetism and rhythm. It’s interesting that Diaz inserts dialogue about how haikus are perfect because of their concise and compact length within the midst of a 4-hour film. Diaz is a tricky one to comprehend indeed. This was one of the smoothest films I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. I’ve seen short films that felt longer than this. Diaz is currently on top of his game, and this might just be his greatest achievement so far.
As I’ve moved through the works of Lav Diaz, I’ve pretty much moved from a curious outsider to a fanboy screaming “masterpiece!” at a moment’s notice. I was prompted to rate this as part of the festival audience voting right after and gave a snap judgement of 5/5, I’ve had it settling in my mind for a few days now, and I don’t think that judgment was so snap.