The film title refers to the Philippines’ northern province Ilocos Norte, where Diaz’s film takes place. In this way, the narrative has a specific locus, it is, at least provisionally, a hint that it is bound to the territory and the nation of the Philippines. In many ways it is, but in many more, it is not. A law school dropout Fabian converses with his law teachers on the subject of philosophy, but as the discourse reveals itself, it becomes a radicalized mambo jambo. Fabian mentions that his outlook relies on the abandoning of the “myth of provenance”, but in this very term, the problems with Diaz’s film, as they reveal themselves to us at the very end of the movie become manifest. Fabian is an anarchist, compassionate but prone to violence, which he sees as a solution to social maladies.
Neil Young of the The Hollywood Reporter wrote the following about Norte: “There’s little in the way of genuine depth, complexity or nuance here, Diaz instead seeking to convey the illusion of profundity by having various characters throw around weighty social and philosophical verbiage in thuddingly sophomoric fashion.“ The problem doesn’t lie in the banality of Fabian’s philosophical stances, the point is precisely in the fact that Fabian is deeply confused, and approaches complex social issues with facile, radical solutions. They were intended to be “sophmoric” and devoid of true meaning; Diaz wanted to show the radicalization of youth and their confusion in the post-Marcos Philippines.
Fabian idolizes the dictator Marcos, a recurring phantasm of the Philippines’ past in Diaz’s films, and says that in the beginning, while he was killing his own people he was doing a good job, but as soon as he ended the state of exception and “democratized corruption”, his fall was at hand. Fabian proposes that the corrupt and the evil should be killed, starting with radical moralism and ending in radical immoralism and criminality, the standpoint Nietzsche fought against throughout most of his life. All of this is merely a preparation for things to come, and Diaz sets the stage for a Crime and Punishment scenario.
A wealthy and corrupt pawnbrokeress exploits the poor, takes their most valued possessions for a meagre compensation. A poor man with a wounded leg, Joaquin, wants to return her wife’s ring, which she inherited and values deeply, and when the pawnbrokeress refuses to return it, he starts to choke her in anger, but does not kill her. To assert his willingness to follow his principles, Fabian does it shortly after the incident, murdering the pawnbrokeress as well as her young daughter who witnessed the murder with a knife. Diaz elegantly develops this Crime and Punishment scenario, and for the next two hours or so we are dealing with the aftermath of the crimes; the philosophical exposition Dostoevsky’s novel is famous for gives way to exploring the characters’ feelings and life after the murders, as Joaquin is falsely accused of two murders and Fabian walks free.
The film’s greatest merits are revealed here, as Fabian’s suffering because of the guilt he feels is symbolically portrayed in a shot in which he looks through the window of his apartment, which has bar across it. He is no less in a prison that Joaquin, and even more so, since the latter’s compassion in prison toward other inmates shows his moral qualities and the strength of character. We see the sufferings of Joaquin’s wife and children, and in one particular shot, we see them standing at the edge of the cliff, his wife almost commits suicide with her children, but in the next shot we se a colorful carousel and the children laughing.
The hypnotic shots with very little camera movement make us feel the suffering of the characters, and shows us the brilliance of the suburban landscapes as they are shown in muted artificial light. In a particularly moving scene, we see Joaquin’s wife’s face for a long time, as it changes, on the verge of tears, etched in suffering. It is similar to the last shot of Ming-liang Tsai’s Vive L’Amour, and has a similar hypnotizing feel, although it is a medium long shot, and not a close-up. This film, unlike many other Lav Diaz films, is shot in color, and a distinctly new feel and aesthetic emerge.
The main problem with Norte, the End of History is, as its end is nearing, it is starting to become a “mythology of provenance”, dealing with the origins of animalistic evil embodied in Fabian. He rapes his sister and is almost identified with a dog when he plays with him shortly after the crime. Fabian says to his sister earlier, that he does not believe in the concept of family any more, that it was cursed and rotten from its very beginning, since their parents left for Europe and the USA, while Fabian and his sister were raised by maids. Diaz falls in a trap of exposing Fabian’s criminality in terms of discourses on degeneration, and as Fabian’s crimes multiply, his mental state disintegrates as well. In the end, we see Joaquin levitating, implying that he is saved, while Fabian is shown crossing the river – a possible allusion to the river Styx, and the film abruptly ends leaving him in the middle of the stream implying that he is in purgatory of sorts.
Some time earlier in the film, Joaquin’s wife says that she doesn’t envy rich people; they have big houses and expensive cars, but their children live without a mother or father. Diaz presents himself as some kind of a nihilistic Ozu, with an idea that a family life is the only possible way of escaping the life of terror (“To live is a curse”, says one inmate), and shows the extremes: an anarchist renounces all family bonds and is deprived of them from the start, and a virtuous, simple family man, although imprisoned, is saved through love for his family. In Evolution of a Filipino Family, the depiction of family life resonates much more strongly and delicately, as we witness the demise of a family during the Marcos regime. Norte is a critics’ darling, similarly to Haneke’s Amour; both films fall short due to forced symbolism. Diaz’s and Haneke’s earlier work deserves to be praised much more (with both directors we do not have to go far in the past, The White Ribbon and Florentina Hubaldo, CTE were released shortly before the aforementioned films).
Diaz is at his best when he deals with cultural trauma, memory and political imagination of a nation, mainly in his Melancholia, Florentina Hubaldo, CTE and From What is Before. In Melancholia, personal trauma is closely intertwined with cultural trauma, as Diaz is explores the feelings of the families of the missing during Marcos’ reign; in Florentina Hubaldo, CTE, Florentina represents the Philippines themselves, raped and tortured by foreign powers and dictators, traumatized, she struggles to remember. In Norte, we see the contemporary Philippines, but Diaz was not satisfied with portraying the collapse of a society in the form of devastating radical individualism, but wanted to show the origins of evil, and ended up in simplifications and discourses on degeneration based on generalized presumptions. The film is in color, but is more black-and-white than all of his earlier films.