Norte, The End Of History, Lav Diaz’s four-hour-plus tweak of Crime And Punishment, scrubs the book’s reverse-detective-story elements, leaving its version of Raskolnikov—the intellectual-turned-murderer protagonist of Dostoevsky’s novel—to roam free. He experiences guilt, but not consequences; those have been passed on to two people he doesn’t know: the man wrongfully convicted of the crime, and the man’s wife, who must make a life for herself while her husband sits in prison.
Contemporary festival-circuit culture fetishizes long takes, but Diaz actually earns them. Over the past decade, the prolific Filipino director has emerged as one of the world’s quintessential independents, working in his own unique version of the medium. This makes much of Diaz’s work exhilarating, but also difficult to see; most of his major features clock in at six hours or more. Kudos, then, are owed to Cinema Guild—the adventurous distributor of Leviathan and Museum Hours, among others—for making Norte the first Diaz film to receive anything like a proper Stateside release.
Norte is both a radical departure for Diaz and a perfect gateway into the director’s work. For one, it’s conventionally handsome; though much of his output from the past decade was produced on noisy consumer-grade video and desaturated into black and white, the crisp-looking Norte finds him working in color for the first time since 2002’s shoestring sci-fi flick Hesus The Revolutionary. It’s shot in richly textured widescreen, and shaped by gradual, choreographed camera movements.
Here, Diaz’s beloved scraggly countrysides—usually rendered as clouds of squirming gray pixels—become hyper-detailed vistas. The fuzziness of lo-fi video made landscapes seem like dreamscapes. In Norte, Diaz achieves a different oneiric effect; in an aerial sequence—shot with what appears to be a GoPro attached to a remote-controlled copter—the earth seems to warp under the lens.
Norte’s opening scene—a single-take conversation between ex-law-student Fabian (Sid Lucero) and two friends—is built around an almost imperceptibly slow dolly move, the camera inching closer toward the three as Fabian changes the subject from politics to borrowing money. As in Diaz’s best work, the duration is of a piece with the subject matter; it immerses the viewer in the conversation, in the personalities of the characters, and in their characters’ speech rhythms as they continually switch between Filipino and English. Later in the film, a long backward dolly—framed in a sweeping, high-angle wide shot—follows Eliza (Angeli Bayani) as she walks silently along a canal, enclosed on both sides by sloping walls of dirt. Aside from the lack of cuts, the two scenes couldn’t be more different, and yet they both showcase the same sense of authority. It feels as though wherever the camera might be—and however it might be moving—is exactly where it belongs.
This extends to the most distinctive feature of Diaz’s style: his use of off-screen space. Convicted of the double murder committed by Fabian, Eliza’s husband Joaquin (Archie Alemania) is sent to prison, where, early on, he witnesses a rape in the cell opposite his own. The rape occurs entirely off-screen. The camera fixes on the bars of Joaquin’s cell, as he and his cellmates watch, unable to act. As the screams continue, Joaquin bows his head in shame; his cellmate Wakwak (Soliman Cruz) elbows his way toward the front, trying to get a better view. “I have killed many; I am no longer human,” declares Wakwak in an earlier scene. He is nonchalant. His glasses always catch the light, making it seem as though he has no eyes, and, in a way, no soul.
Norte acts as a succinct summary of the ideas Diaz has been exploring since the beginning of his career. The use of Dostoevsky as a starting point goes back to his first feature, The Criminal Of Barrio Concepcion. Just as Raskolnikov loved to yammer on about Napoleon, Fabian self-justifies by invoking Filipino nationalist icons. The country’s past seems in some way complicit in his crime, and its present in Joaquin’s wrongful imprisonment. As in the director’s other major works, fractured families and Filipino history become intertwined with a sense of metaphysical transformation. These ideas grow and become palpable within long takes, which have the precise descriptive power of 19th-century realist fiction, conveying something more than a narrative—a view of society and human nature, the sort of thing that takes time.