Norte, The End of the History (2013)

Lav Diaz’s Norte, The End of the History is a film of great length and ambition. It is said to be based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece, Crime and Punishment, and is generally accepted as a brilliant adoption of the literary classic to contemporary Filipino life, with comparable depth and scope to the original. Like Crime and Punishment, Diaz’s movie is said to belong to the highest echelons of art, and it enjoys universal acclaim as it is said to represent a triumph of Filipino independent cinema. Yet, Diaz’s feature shows little resemblance to Dostoyevsky’s novel in important ways.

Unlike the protagonist of Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov, our anti-hero Fabian (Sid Lucero) has no redemptive quality. Yes, like Raskolnikov, Fabian murders a money lender. Yet, unlike Raskolnikov, he also kills an innocent bystander. Despite Fabian’s philosophy of only morally motivated murder being permissible, his selfishness proves stronger. Thus he brutally murders the guiltless money lender’s daughter, whose only crime was witnessing her mother’s death. Also, unlike Raskolnikov, he never gives himself up to the authorities, thereby letting an innocent man, Joaquin (Archie Alemania), be punished for his crime. It is only years after that Fabian tries to correct this wrong in his predictably dubious way; he exchanges what he stole from his victim at the pawn shop, hands the money to the wife of Joaquin, Eliza (Angeli Bayani), and persuades his former colleague and professors to reopen the case of Joaquin, without turning himself in. And, more importantly, Fabian never makes a meaningful attempt to atone for his sins: He doesn’t admit his crime to anyone, and although he knows immorality of his crime, he continues on his destructive path. It is all too evident that his focus is intensely on how he feels about his deeds than what he did to his victims. Thus, Fabian’s descent into darkness is irreversible, and he seems to come to a dead end with his precious theory on so-called ‘post-humanity’.

The most important point made by Dostoyevsky in Crime and Punishment is: To truly atone for one’s sin, first one must admit one’s sin to oneself. Without this admission, one cannot repent, and without repenting one’s sin, there is no possible redemption of one’s soul. Raskolnikov gives himself up on the recommendation of Sophia, and promptly goes to jail. Yet, redemption eludes him until he finally admits the enormity of his crime to himself. This cathartic redemption at the end of the novel is what makes it one of the most important classics. Since Diaz openly admires the Russian author, it is inevitable to ask: Why does he choose to deny redemption for his Raskolnikov?

This is due to Diaz’s assessment of the contemporary state of affairs in the Philippines. As the title suggests, Diaz’s critique is squarely aimed at the aftermath of the alleged ‘triumph’ of liberal capitalism, which signifies the ‘End of History’, as suggested by Francis Fukuyama. According to Fukuyama, the liberal capitalist form of society is the end point of human evolution, and thus, it is not only the best form of society, but it is inevitable. Of course, just like his counter part, i.e., Marxists, Fukuyama is merely, and erroneously, appropriating Hegelian dialectic to justify his chosen political ideology. As Norte is rife with historical critiques of modern Filipino politics and its place in contemporary global economy and politics, the notion of the ‘End of History’ has to be taken as an irony, albeit a pointed one that is supposed to cut deep.

In this context, Fabian, a modern day Raskolnikov, is a representative character of the ‘Zero-Society’, which itself is a product of global liberal capitalism. He is a preacher of radical individual freedom, a freedom which justifies ruthless murder of the morally decrepit. According to Fabian, it is not only history which is dead. The notions of truth and meaning are dead as well, and thus everything is permitted. In this what he calls a 'post-human’ world, violence is not only permitted, but required. He is not preaching a Hobbesian state of nature here; he argues that violence must be directed at everything that impedes morality. Like any psychopath, Fabian certainly knows how to dazzle his audience with his ardent radicalism. Yet, his professors and friends alike ask: Define ‘morality’, define ‘good’ and ‘evil’. And these are fair questions.

As it turns out, Fabian is a mere faux intellectual. Notwithstanding his appearance, he is intellectually lazy in that he does not bother to defend his most fundamental assumptions, despite that the justification of his ‘theory’ depends on the correctness of these assumptions. He merely declares in response to the questions posed by his former professors that one must forget what the ‘stupid philosophers’ said and rely on instinct alone. He merely declares that we already 'know' what is good and what is evil. Whilst such a statement might sound radical and iconoclastic, in fact, it is a cheap move to mask his shallowness. He is a particularly maleficent product of this age. His generation grew up seeing the promise of revolution and a better future sabotaged, and was told that there is no prospect of changing the course of history, as history itself has already ended. In a world where everything is gutted hollow by the econo-political elites, the notion of justice under the law seems meaningless. As he cannot turn to religion, Fabian is left with his faux radicalism, for, as smart as he is, he has no sincerity to pursue a genuine intellectual path. Despite being a poser, Fabian’s radicalism is taken seriously by intellectuals, and he has established himself a reputation of a radical thinker, a crown prince of Filipino intelligentsia in hiding. Yet, his radicalism does not bring any meaningful social change. Why?

It is because Fabian, like Marcello from The Conformist (1970, Bernardo Bertolucci, link), is not really concerned about history, philosophy, or politics. His radicalism is like Marcello’s conformism to Italian Fascism; it is a means to dress up his personal grudge for the world around him as a radical, and dangerous, political gesture. As a result, the only thing they are capable of is committing a horrific yet cowardly crime. Malicious yet pathetic, Fabian goes on as a miserable parasite of everyone around him. Denying redemption to this self-important fellow from a privileged class, and granting it to a certain extent to Joaquin, Diaz is making a statement about class relation in our contemporary world. The picture he presents here is a familiar one; we have a rather long list of privileged and disgruntled sociopaths and homicidal criminals amongst our contemporaries. In this regard, the relentlessness with which Diaz paints the misfortune of Joaquin’s wife, Eliza, and the abysmal descent of Fabian, is somewhat justified. For Diaz, the End of History is a hell where the innocents suffer and the sinners roam free.

Still, the justification of Norte’s pessimistic realism is only partially granted. This is due to Diaz’s fatal misstep; whilst he denounces Fabian’s ‘post-human’ society, or ‘Zero-Society’, he neither resists it nor counters it by delivering certain justice, poetic or otherwise. Here, I am thinking of a particular moment of cinematic genius delivered by the Coen Brothers in No Country for Old Men (2007). Toward the end of the movie, completely out of the blue, supposedly invincible Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) meets a stunning twist of fate. As he drives along a peaceful street after all is said and done, suddenly, a car, which is seemingly driven by someone dead, strikes his with full impact. Both immensely satisfying and shocking at the same time, this sequence shows that there can be a certain justice even in a world which is completely devoid of hope.

Sadly, Diaz failed to deliver this sort of masterstroke which separates films that are interesting, and cinemas that are truly great (I am not of the opinion that No Country for Old Men is a great movie; yet I truly believe that the scene I described above is one of the greatest scene in the history of cinema. It is a prime example of the Divine Violence; Walter Benjamin would be happy if he had a chance to see it). Whilst the liberal capitalist hell of ‘Zero-Society’ that Diaz presents is undoubtedly beautifully captured, this beauty does little to soften the despair of the ‘post-human’ world. As Joaquin does acquire a certain redemption by evolving into a kind of saint, and he might even be acquitted in the future, damningly, by Fabian’s scheme, it still does not right the wrong as long as Fabian roams free. Given the price Joaquin’s family has had to pay, no amount of compensation would suffice. Instead of delivering a cinematic Divine Violence to Fabian, Diaz chooses to stick to his Bressonian minimalism to the end, thereby leaving this post-human condition unchallenged. One might argue that Diaz justifiably assumes that his audience would take his warning to heart and be pushed to actively resist this ‘Zero-Society’. Yet there is a lot of assuming in this argument. Given the film’s failure to provide true redemption to Joaquin and retribution to Fabian, we might think of this film as a statement of despair: It is what it is, and I will make you face reality in all of it’s harshness, so get used to it.

Of course, some might even endorse Diaz’s method by saying that this is the only justifiable attitude at this point in history: We should not insert ourselves in documenting the ills of the world; rather, we should show it just as it is. The problem is though, that this very endorsement of Norte and Diaz’s methodology also validates the very notion of post-human world as a given. This defence is based on the supposition that we now indeed live in Fabian’s ’Zero-Society’. And this statement assumes in turn the validity of such a concept. If we are to accept these assertions, what now? Should we follow the footsteps of Fabian then? As terrifying as it is, once you accept the notion of the ‘Zero-Society’ as a given, there is nothing to deny this possibility. Are any of you willing to go that far? I hope not. Naturally, this is not the point Diaz wants to make. Norte is meant to be as illuminating as Dostoevsky’s original novel. However, in order to achieve the profound effect Dostoyevsky unfailingly produces with his work, stoically documenting the suffering of innocents and the descent of the criminal from a certain distance is not enough. There must be some moments of emotional interventions by the author so that we can feel inspired and elevated enough to fight back.

Unfortunately, this deficit in this visually gorgeous work is as inevitable as Fabian’s downfall. It is because Diaz's commitment to his minimalist style does not allow him to do otherwise. This is a prime case of an artist being a hostage of his own style. It is clear that Diaz’s chosen style and method betrayed him in Norte. He must have wanted to create a cinematic masterpiece of devastating emotional intensity of the kind with which Dostoevsky always captures his readers. Yet, his film is no Dostoyevsky; it is rather a Hemingway. Whilst Diaz’s visual is lush and expansive, his narrative is as dry as Hemingway’s, leaving his characters stereotypical, his observations of humanity a cliché without a complexity or a genuine depth. In the end, Norte ends up resembling its anti-hero; whilst dazzling with charm at times, its critique cuts neither deep nor sharp.