Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan (Lav Diaz, 2013) March 29, 2014Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Noypi.
Written by Rody Vera and Lav Diaz
Directed by Lav Diaz
Cast: Sid Lucero, Angeli Bayani, Archie Alemania, Hazel Orencio, Angelina Kanapi, Soliman Cruz
Sometime in 2004, in a roomful of undergraduate students, a lecturer started his class by sneering at Lav Diaz. That time there was a lot of talk about the release of Ebolusyon ng isang Pamilyang Pilipino, a work filled with characters steeped in many shades of anguish not far from the despair experienced by those who took part in making it. This lecturer, who also happened to have established a name for himself as a film critic, was aghast by the idea of a ten-hour movie being conceived and received, let alone being programmed at international festivals, and this made Ebolusyon an easier target of his ridicule.
There was no way of remembering the exact words, for it was his self-aggrandizing tone and highly inspired provocation that caught the students’ attention, specifically the manner in which he delighted in his attack, condemning the film solely for its length, the peak of which came when he pointed out, one by one and systematically, the various activities that could be accomplished in ten hours, from the mundane to the outrageous, from washing clothes and waiting for them to dry to the slow formation of stalactites and stalagmites, and his filibustering went on for three hours until it was already time for the students to leave. Judging by the looks on their faces, sitting through that class was either absolute pain or absolute pleasure, and thanks to this lecturer, who hadn’t seen a second of Ebolusyon yet already making permanent impressions, some of them had reconsidered pursuing their film degrees, inadvertently allowing this minor incident to cut through several facets of their academic experience.
It is a useless memory with negligible consequences—an instructor’s display of ferocious absurdity seems nothing compared with the news of a student committing suicide several years later, whose passing has shaken the spirit of numerous film majors, some of whom are present in that class—but it is a known fact that useless memories cling forever; and these bits of impractical and hollow details, always there but seldom acknowledged, only become well-defined in the most inopportune moment, confirming that even meaningless things resonate deeply given the right time and vulnerability. This violent act of dissing and dismissing films without having seen them, bringing to light the brutally bitter side of criticism driven for the most part by self-importance, recalls the dynamics of quiet viciousness that persists in Diaz’s body of work.
Even as early as Serafin Geronimo: Ang Kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion, he has demonstrated the ability to inflict wounds that feel painful only after they heal, and in his much longer movies this fixation has grown bleaker and more threatening, for between the projected image and the audience a bridge is being built for the burden to cross. The length of his movies has always been a source of discouragement, but experiencing the passage of time is crucial in looking into his work, especially with how such proceeding changes and erodes the lives of his characters, how it observes their gentle descent into oblivion. The concepts that Diaz is so keen on exploring film after film hardly feel abstract or theoretical: they are made specific by his anger and frustration, by the seeming futility of struggle, and by the aggression inculcated in small and large systems, begun and exacerbated during colonial rule, and present up to now on various levels of society, continuing to oppress and eliminate the weak and the poor, to whom he has frequently dedicated his stories.
Diaz has always been on the periphery of the industry, and this position, away from the rewards and restrictions of popular digital cinema, the development of which has given way to a much-desired golden age, has made his films even more distant from the public. Almost a decade after Ebolusyon, he directs Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan, which bears resemblance to Batang Westside not only in length and use of color but also in tautness and precision. With the searing clarity of its vision and the measure of significance that lies in its fullness, Norte is likely to be mentioned constantly as proof of his brilliance. It has come at a time when the current political climate is beset with prospects of having another Marcos as president and the alarming emergence of young minds defending his dictatorial regime. In his interviews, Diaz is vocal about the character of Fabian being molded from Ferdinand Marcos—the brightest law student in his class, the young murderer dodging his punishment, the intellectual wrestling with his demons, the man gifted with good looks, wealth, and freedom but struggling for peace of mind and contentment, the leader enlivened by his keenness to destroy—and he has made it a point to set Norte in Marcos’s hometown in Ilocos, the land where the roots of despotism are anchored until present, lending the film not only its title but also its past.
The guise of a linear structure does not prevent Diaz from telling a compelling narrative, but whenever he takes the liberty of sidestepping—lingering over sceneries, pursuing dead-end characters, inserting plots that can stand on their own outside the film, or conjuring dream sequences that raise the narrative to overwhelming heights—the emotions that have once been firm and unyielding suddenly soften, escaping the confines of cinema and connecting themselves with larger aspects of human condition. It takes a while before Norte arrives at a point of levelheaded tranquility, before the bad taste left by the uncomfortable bursts of philosophizing turns into a reminder of horrible things to come, but when it does, when the narrative arcs of Fabian and Joaquin become closer by moving away from each other, all possible exits lead to tragedy.
The weight carried by the film owes a lot to Diaz’s understanding of grief, which allows him to orchestrate big and small pieces of heartbreaking incidents to form a whole that touches every moral surface, no matter how far and deep. Adding to the throb of pain, which takes its time before making its absence felt, is the parchedness of dramatic highlights, especially in those sequences with Joaquin and Eliza, who bear the film’s soul and spirit, the couple whose days and nights alternate between looking back and looking forward, always waiting to avert the misfortune lying ahead of them. The most painful and powerful moments in Norte are those that show their need to live for each other, all the time refusing to succumb to bad luck, only to end up in an unconditional state of desolation in which all their hopes settle as dust.
Joaquin’s story—an unremarkable man whose dream of setting up a small livelihood for his family is shattered by an accident; an unremarkable man who, in an unreasonable turn of events, becomes the fall guy prosecuted for double murder; an unremarkable man who, after seeing Eliza for the first time in several years and exchanging with her a future built only on optimism, unguarded from the certainties of disappointment, is likely to hear the news of her death in a cruel accident (the kind that happens so frequently in the country it hardly feels impossible)—is a story that keeps repeating itself among the masses, among the people who have grown tired of fighting for their rights and are now simply taking it all in, their paths worsened by the paths before them, their fates dictated not by god but by man.
A poor man can weather as many bad accidents as possible—being born into an impoverished family, having to go through life in the most abject of circumstances, being disgraced on account of his social position, trying all means to survive only to be buried deeper in debt and penury—but one severe incident, the reason for which will never be discovered, is enough to efface all his tremendous displays of fortitude, forcing him to give up. Norte openly overstates the goodness of Joaquin, the way he responds to evil by showing incredible compassion, and the culmination of which happens as he reaches a spiritual peak. But even Diaz, who has invested in Joaquin the warmest affection possible between an author and a creation, cannot bring himself to face Joaquin’s reaction to Eliza’s demise, and the audience feels this sorrow in the final scene where Ading and the two children walk funereally, looking numb and emptied, impossible to be comforted.
In almost every review of Norte there seems to be a fulsome need to mention Diaz’s admiration for Dostoevsky, the parallelism and differences between Raskolnikov and Fabian, the hopelessness of their tormented existence and the context in which their actions (and inactions) produce harsh consequences. While this is clearly a remarkable way of examining his work, unfortunately it also limits the perspective appropriate for a much more illuminating appreciation of his position as a filmmaker from the third world, as a narrator of his countrymen’s inexhaustible suffering, and as a Filipino who tries to alleviate the centuries-old struggle for equal opportunity by keeping its memories alive. Extrapolating Dostoevsky’s influence on his films creates an attractive distraction, one that asserts Diaz’s accessibility because of the themes he engages in, but it does not exactly offer the most persuasive reason for his importance. The patriotism that permeates in his films has always been exact and uncompromising—the identity of the characters is unmistakably Filipino, made more distinct by their ambiguities and contradictions—and in this regard, it is only rational to suggest that the artists with whom Diaz can be comfortably associated are his fellow writers with strong roots in social realism, specifically Rogelio Sicat and Edgardo Reyes, authors whose short stories, novels, and essays confront the elaborate cycle of violence experienced by the poor and their great efforts to contend with this terrible reality.
In two of his most celebrated stories, “Impeng Negro” and “Tata Selo,” both written in the early sixties, Sicat brings to life characters pushed to the extremes by people who abuse them, forcing them to break and fight back. Constantly bullied by his neighbor for his skin color, Impen can no longer contain the scorn and loathing hurled at him, so after feeling the blood in his cheeks, after being hit and kicked repeatedly despite his defenselessness, and after being ridiculed for his sorry condition, he gets up and pummels the face of his adversary as madly as he can, using only what he has: his hands and the sheer urge to defend his dignity. Tata Selo, on the other hand, is an old man imprisoned for killing the owner of the land he tills, who, according to him, has terminated him from work unfairly; but as the subtle details of the story reveal, the reason for the crime is the rape committed to his daughter. Holding the cold steel bars and looking far away, he mutters, in an expression of grief that intimates his inability to resist madness, that everything (his land, his daughter, his honor, and his life) has been taken away from him.
Impen and Tata Selo are nowhere to be found in Norte—it’s no surprise that the likes of them are dead by now, in real life and in fiction—but the distinct qualities that have made them unforgettable characters in Philippine literature are in Joaquin and Eliza, who get by through their heroic patience and belief that life, until and unless it ends, will always have a chance to be better. Prizewinning playwright Rody Vera, with the help of Raymond Lee and Michiko Yamamoto, shapes them (as well as Fabian, whose antagonism and cunningness provide the film a livid state of grace) and plants their stories deeply in a fertile soil, enabling Diaz to cultivate it on his own terms. The freedom given by Vera is a wonderful gift, for Diaz, perhaps even without knowing it, is able to pay tribute to Mga Agos sa Disyerto, a seminal anthology first published in the sixties that renders the subject of poverty with emphasis on radical form and content, linking the traditional and the progressive. Fifty years have passed since then and the can of worms, passed from one destitute generation to another, is still there. Diaz captures in Norte the passage of time and change of values in these people, their struggle being the only invariable element, and imparts the imposing scale of adversity committed to them.
One particular scene springs to mind, which, when taken into consideration with the film’s finer details, can easily go unnoticed: Tired after spending the entire day pushing her cart of produce around town, Eliza returns home with a plastic bag of bread for her children and sister. They invite her to eat, but Eliza, who has probably forgotten in the long years of hard work what hunger means, declines and goes to bed. The film moves to another scene, but for some reason, perhaps due to the way it evokes the plainness of life absent from the city or how Angeli Bayani leaves the viewer unsteady by making simple gestures, it’s difficult to shake off the ache of witnessing that short moment fade away without imagining how it has come about—exhausted, Eliza remembers her loved ones as she walks home, stops by a store to buy something for them, and smiles as she pictures the look of happiness on their faces. But she won’t take a piece of her present. She would rather offer it pure and untouched. She’s too drained to even think of this, so she decides it’s better to turn in so she can wake up early next morning for work. It’s hard to believe that this is the same mother who, out of distress and desperation, has once contemplated killing herself and her children, and in the end is betrayed by the very faith she has protected painstakingly, but selflessness, at its most heartbreaking, identifies itself better with thoughts of tragedy.
It’s unfair that there’s only so much a writer can talk about in the presence of great art, but the inability to express and explain every aspect of its finery simply confirms its worth. Every attempt to assess Norte reflects the failure to cover countless areas of discussion it cracks open—the most striking of which, arguably, is the nature of Fabian’s crimes; how the first murder is totally uncalled for and how it is necessitated only by an exercise of will and a mania to satisfy himself; how the second murder substantiates this nihilism and how, instead of surrendering himself, his idea of making amends by helping Joaquin’s family through his connections is even sicker; how the succeeding crimes (raping his sister, killing a dog) are corollary; and most importantly, how human experience boils down to all questions of how. The life and times of Juan dela Cruz roll on this Möbius strip, continuous and one-sided, all ends joined. The film’s title, in what seems to be Diaz’s harshest assertion, does not refer only to a province but also to a direction, the cardinal point of a compass, the traveler’s guide to reaching a destination, and the force that pulls a person to a grand purpose. What Norte ascertains is that all debates on the current state of Philippine cinema must end: It answers everything. And sadly it is enough.