December 15, 2014 / Filmwell
It is that time of the year when with a heave and a sigh I …
December 3, 2014
In 1989, Fukuyama declared the “end of history” in the “universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Norte begins with a similar mouthful, kicked about by Fabian and his law school colleagues as they muse over beers about class and inequity in the current Philippines’ economy. This theme of ideology looms large in the film, mainly through the periodic narrative nudge or buried in Diaz’s compulsive staring at the shacks, rickshaws, and quiet family meals etched between the lines of Fukuyama’s thesis.
But there is also a thick layer of Dostoyevsky present in Fabian’s plight, through which the “end of history” manifests itself in more existential terms. (Vera’s essay at Film Comment does an excellent job of setting Norte in the context of Diaz’ other similarly Dostoyevskian films.) The drama pivots on Fabian’s murder of Magda, the local loan shark. The crime is pinned on Joaquin, who is also deeply in debt to Magda as he keeps his family afloat during a period of disability. Fabian is never considered a suspect, but Joaquin is quickly sentenced for life in the prison system. They are poor. They don’t understand English – which is the language of their legal system. The remainder of the film then becomes an exercise in contrasts.
Like Raskalnikov in Crime and Punishment, Fabian’s illusion of personal freedom unravels over years into madness. Joaquin, imprisoned, becomes a mirror image, as he confronts this injustice through significant acts of kindness and care toward fellow prisoners. We watch his children grow older, his wife learning to fend for herself, and their migration through living spaces marking the passage of time. Fabian on the other hand wanders, mired in the Dostoyevskian horror of being a murderer.
In these mirror-image narratives, the “end of history” as an ideological reflection is internalized, reified, and then cast by Diaz as a cinematic mold for the essence of human drama. Into this, Diaz pours the narratives of Fabian and Joaquin as the cost of our own progress.
This is almost precisely what happens in the Dardennes’ films. The pressures of history and economy are reconceived on human scale. But there is an additional poetry to Diaz’s work that is difficult to describe in a short space. I believe this is what Rorty refers to as “strong poetry.” Over the ideological chatter we hear the rich interrogation of Crime and Punishment, progressively questioning whatever complacency we bring to the film. The relentlessly sharp depth of focus and the length of his establishing shots begin to wear on the viewer, a tactic similar to compelling someone else to speak or respond by just remaining silent.
The dialogue is so loosely scattered throughout the film that one fears missing a snippet of the four hour script will break the spell Diaz has cast. And the tensions that build so slowly throughout the film eventually break loose in pretty stunning ways – Fabian in a Twentynine Palms-like reversal of the myth of human progress, and Joaquin as a surrealist Christ-figure floating with Weerasethakul through Southeast Asian visions of rebirth.
There is one sequence toward the end of Norte in which we are looking at a set of streets and homes receding into the background. It captures well the disorienting experience of beholding Filipino suburban design, with its webs, tangles, and digressions. Diaz lets us just look at the frame and its composition for long enough that it begins to change; it becomes a flat Escher-like series of lines and shapes that don’t quite resolve. But after a while, a figure moves right to left in the uppermost street of the scene, and the entire picture snaps back into focus as something real, tangible, and unexpectedly human. It is as if at the end of the sequence we are seeing the scene for the first time.
This visual trick happens again and again throughout the film. Diaz is constantly forcing the eye to calibrate between two senses or geometries in each composition: its raw circle and squareness and the function each space plays as a sphere of human activity. Each of these extended interludes is a bit of a chicken-and-egg puzzle: Which came first? The ideological mess that is the Philippines and its classism, or this jumble of architecture that hides and maintains it? There is an “end of history” in either.
There is much more to be said here about Norte formally and thematically. The existential shape of Fabian’s “end of history” could sustain lengthy political theological conversations. Diaz’s placement on the map of contemporary cinema is a ripe question. The file of Norte images to talk about is more than full, tending toward apocalyptic. But now that the film is on Netflix Instant, you have no reason to not expose yourself to this film.