*. This first shot pretty much sets the tone for what’s to come. Not because of anything that’s being said — Fabian is a stereotypical undergrad philosopher trying to be provocative — but because of the way it’s presented: a single long take with no camera movement, no editing, and no score. Welcome to “slow cinema.”
*. Director Lav Diaz isn’t going to stray very far from this approach, and at just over four hours, Norte is one of Diaz’s shorter films. We get long shots of a road, then someone starts walking or driving toward us, and the camera just sits and watches them until they pass out of the frame. There’s even a scene where Joaquin is on crutches peddling DVDs and we might hope for some mercy but we have to watch him run the same course. And the final shot of the film repeats this movement twice, once with a boy walking into and out of the frame and then with the remnants of Eliza’s family.
*. The question this raises is “What’s the point?” What’s the point of just letting the camera sit on the road like one of those video speed traps the police use, waiting for cars to go by going over the limit and snapping pictures of their licence plate? And what’s the point of making a four-hour movie? Does Norte need to be that long?
*. You could say that the road is a symbol of life or fate, from which there are no detours or digressions. The same message is probably behind the cruel running time as well: this is a film that’s meant to be endured more than enjoyed. That’s really the best I can do.
*. Critics ate it up. It was a foreign film without any prospects of being a commercial hit. I don’t mean that to sound flip, but aside from some nice photography, which actually manages to overstay its welcome, there really isn’t much to recommend about this film.
*. Neil Young, writing in the Hollywood Reporter, was one of the few negative voices, and his comments are hard to refute. “There’s little in the way of genuine depth, complexity or nuance here [but only] . . . the illusion of profundity.” There are only three characters we spend any time with in the whole film, and “Joaquin and Eliza are little more than plaster saints from beginning to end in a film which simplistically equates poverty with spiritual purity and fortitude.”
*. That final point could be expanded on. Not only is poverty equated with spiritual purity and fortitude, but wealth is equated with meanness (the grotesquely obese pawnbroker) and decadence. There’s almost a sense of Philippines Gothic adhering to the plantation big house that Fabian’s sister lives in and the Faulknerian “curse” their family suffers under. It’s sort of interesting, but as Young notes it’s without complexity or nuance. And yet the class angle is exactly what Diaz has most often been praised for focusing on in this film.
*. The performances are hard to praise very much, as only a few characters are given much to do and they’re kept at such a distance it’s maddening. Would a single close-up have killed Diaz? I have nothing against a film that believes in long shots, and at times these can be effective, but you have to work in a bit of variety.
*. I felt the same way about the violence. That the pawnbroker and her daughter are killed off-camera was fine, though I couldn’t help thinking Diaz was saving money more than making an aesthetic decision. Then, when the rape scene is played the same way (just off camera beyond an open door) I figured it was meant as a deliberate echo of the earlier murders and thought it could be justified. But then when Fabian kills the dog behind a bush I thought there was a problem. Not that I wanted to see any of these terrible acts, but just that in a movie like this you have to show something, at least once, to make us believe in it.
*. Crime and Punishment, or at least the Punishment part of it, is a very Russian novel. I don’t know how well it translates to other cultures, especially Philippine culture (about which I know next to nothing). In any event, nothing but the initial incident here comes from Dostoyevsky. Norte isn’t a movie about redemption because Joaquin and Eliza have no need to be redeemed and Fabian isn’t. Indeed, the whole notion of punishment is finally disposed of ironically. Is Eliza’s bus in an accident, or blown up by a bomb? Neither. It’s been struck by the hand of God.
*. As far as the title goes, the “Norte” refers to the story being set in Ilocos Norte, the Philippines’ northernmost province. I didn’t know that until I looked it up online. The end of history? I don’t think in Nietzsche’s sense of the last man (that’s not a direction Fabian is heading in), but in Fukuyama’s argument for liberal capitalism marking an end of political progress. Once the rich (people, or nations) rise above any moral or legal law, what happens to them? They must degenerate.
*. There are good things in Norte, but they are too few and far between. In the intervening spaces I spent too much time wondering what the point was, or if the point was as simple as it seemed. Like with the message that rich families are decadent and cursed while poor families abide and endure. Or the way it always seems to be Christmas time. Or the use of fire as a symbol of . . . something in the film’s second half.
*. What are we to make of Joaquin’s levitation? It make me think of Tarkovsky, but seems totally out of keeping with the rest of the film’s dour realism. I’ve heard it said that it represents Joaquin’s having killed himself and his soul floating free. I don’t see that, but I guess it’s possible. I think he’s just having a dream. Diaz seems to want to show and not tell, but he isn’t showing that much either.
*. Fabian’s character is sometimes criticized for slipping off the deep end into psychopathy too suddenly, but this is something I didn’t object to. As I understand it, his deviancy is just the inevitable flowering of long-repressed genetic or childhood deviancies going back to his messed-up family. In that sense he’s not really a character that’s meant to be understood so much as a test case to be observed.
*. It should be a depressing ending, but to be honest I just didn’t feel involved enough with any of the characters to care. The most moving scene, I felt, was Fabian’s sister calling him back to dinner. As an interpretation of Dostoyevsky relocated to the twenty-first century and the other side of the world it’s certainly not without interest, but if ever there were a case of too much and not enough, this film is it.