Norte, the End of History is four hours long. But once you get into its rhythm, which is not slow but majestic, your sense of time is dissolved in the gradual and beautifully photographed developments of the drama. And the surprise that awaits you near the end of the film has less to do with the plot than with the feeling—however unlikely after three-and-a-half hours—that its last 30 minutes are too rushed, that the director, Lav Diaz, needs even more time to allow the story to relax and unfold for another splendid hour or two. This in itself is a great achievement. And more impressive yet is that Norte, a film that has won awards at several arty film festivals, has no bullshit arty moments, none of those long takes of nothing really happening—a wild buffalo roaming a dark jungle, a sad and endless landscape, a boat on a quiet sea, big clouds over a little house. There is none of that crap. Diaz is not a bullshit artist. His film is long because it processes a massive amount of important political, cultural, and intellectual information about his society (the Philippines) and his age (what the American Hegelian Francis Fukuyama famously called the End of History).
But what is this End of History business? It's a concept that is easy to explain. There is a whole tradition of critical theory that sees the 20th century as a battleground for two political camps that emerged in the 19th century: on one side, those with capital; on the other, those who must sell their labor. After the First World War, each of these camps expanded into a powerful nation: one, the USA (capital); the other, the USSR (labor). The nation that won this ideological war won the whole of human history. In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet empire collapsed. In an instant, capitalist liberal democracy became the only political game in town. This is what is meant by the End of History. Diaz refers to it in the feature's title because it represents the single reality his characters and his nation face: a world with no alternatives to global capitalism. You either survive in this system or go under. And all it takes to go under is one small mistake, one bad but human reaction to the relentless pressure to make ends meet.
Diaz's genius lies in recognizing the similarity between our predicament today and that of the 19th century, the moment the struggle between the camps began. He brings the two periods together by borrowing directly from the opening of one of the central novels of that era: Crime and Punishment (1866). Written by an author who was almost executed for his youthful experiment with socialist politics, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime is about Raskolnikov, a young university student who robs and kills an old pawnbroker ("the hag") because intellectual reasoning convinces him that she is a cruel piece of shit and that murder, robbery, or any other supposed moral crime can be permitted in a purposeless universe. Norte's Raskolnikov is Fabian (Sid Lucero), a brilliant but useless law student who believes there is no morality in a world that has no meaning. We are just matter in a void. Like his Russian predecessor, Fabian is broke. He also borrows from a pawnbroker—a cruel and portly woman who spreads lots of money around their seaside community. One night he decides it would be better for him and everyone else indebted to this pest of a capitalist if she were dead. He kills her and also her daughter—collateral damage. This violent act happens in the first hour of the film. Norte soon branches off from its source material, but this early violent act reverberates througout in unexpected ways, none more powerfully than in the connected story of Joaquin (Archie Alemania).
Upon discovering that his desperate wife, Eliza (the talented Angeli Bayani, who also appears in the worthy Singaporean movie Ilo Ilo, which also screens this week), has pawned some piece of junk with sentimental value, Joaquin visits the pawnbroker and begs her to loan him the money to buy the item back. She completely refuses. He is broke. He can't even work (on account of his broken leg). He has nothing to offer her. The pressure of her meanness triggers an explosion in him. He leaps across her desk and starts to choke her. But he soon returns to his senses, flees her house, and goes into hiding. Later, Joaquin becomes the prime suspect for the murder of the pawnbroker and her daughter. He is arrested and sent to prison. This parallel story also unfolds in Norte's wonderful first hour, and leads to an unexpected but deeply human conclusion over the subsequent three.
If the last 30 minutes of Norte unfolded with the majestic pace of the film's first three-and-a-half hours, one could argue with confidence that Diaz had made one of the best films of our times, or at least since history ended. But even as it is, it's a monumental achievement: a four-hour film you wish could be longer.