Our big year-in-review issue hits the street on Thursday, December 25. I know you can’t wait, and neither can I, so every weekday until then I’ll be writing about one of my favorite films to premiere in Chicago in 2014. Number four on my list is Lav Diaz’s Norte, the End of History.
Lav Diaz’s monumental four-hour tragedy Norte, the End of History opens with a scene of four Filipino intellectuals lounging in a coffee shop as they debate no less than the purpose of life. “The only reason for being is the eradication of all elements that are a distraction to morality,” argues Fabian, a brilliant but jaded law-school dropout who now works at the coffee shop. “The wrong must be destroyed. That is absolute.” Over the next few days Fabian grows enraged at the cruelty and avarice of Magda, a corpulent moneylender who preys on the poor people of the neighborhood; stopping outside her door one night, he sees her abuse and assault a desperate woman who has come to her door for help. Soon afterward, Fabian comes into Magda’s home on a pretext and stabs her to death; when Magda’s teenage daughter happens upon the scene, Fabian stabs her to death as well. He gets away scot-free, but the heinous crime is pinned on Joaquin, a local man who was seen earlier that day slapping and throttling Magda.
So begins an epic tale of one man ravaged by guilt and another ennobled by suffering. With its long takes and music-free soundtrack, Norte is liable to get lumped in with the so-called “slow cinema” movement led by such filmmakers as Nuri Bilge Ceylan of Turkey and Cristi Puiu of Romania. Yet Diaz needs every single minute to tell this story, because for him time works as a vise, closing relentlessly on the characters as the days pass into years. Fabian can hardly live with the memory of his crime—he skips town for Manila and falls in with a clique of born-again Christians—but he can’t bring himself to confess what he’s done and eventually shuts himself up in his room, blotting out the daylight with heavy drapes. He returns to the village and spies on the convicted man’s wife, who has slid into poverty with her sister and her two children; at one point he leaves her an envelope full of money. Eventually he returns to his sister out in the country, but he’s so torn up inside that all he can do is destroy everything close to him, because he’s too much of a coward to destroy himself.
Just as Fabian’s evil metastasizes, consuming everything else in his life, Joaquin, the wrongly convicted man, finds so much good in himself that his fellow prisoners begin to revere him as a saint. The prison is a primitive hellhole, and Joaquin’s wing is ruled by the vicious inmate Wakwak, who interrupts the prisoners’ meager Christmas celebration to bully and then savagely beat one man who’s dared to look at him the wrong way. Joaquin tends to the man’s wounds and, years later, even gives Wakwak a massage as he’s lying on his deathbed, which elicits from the bully a tearful plea for forgiveness. Norte ends bleakly, in a world devoid of justice, but it’s not quite devoid of compassion. Contrary to the scholarly bull session that opens the movie, morality is revealed here as an emotional phenomenon, something each person finds within and releases into the outside world.