“Truth is dead,” declares Fabian (Sid Lucero) at the beginning of Norte, the End of History, luxuriating smugly in his own wisdom. “So is meaning.”
Similarly vacuous insights abound as the college dropout and self-styled philosopher holds forth for several minutes on the subject of revolutionary politics, amusing his friends over drinks with such radical pronouncements as “capitalism is evil” before asking them, quite indecorously, to lend him some money.
He hardly seems embarrassed: Fabian, naturally, regards himself as something of a superior specimen, and he therefore considers niceties like social etiquette and morality beneath his consideration. If only he’d studied his Dostoevsky a little closer.
His Übermensch delusions, like Raskolnikov before him, soon compel Fabian to murder a local pawnbroker, a crime for which the innocent Joaquin (Archie Alemania) is duly punished. The familiarity of this setup proves rewarding. Esteemed Filipino auteur Lav Diaz, one of our most essential modern filmmakers, has contemporized this story largely in order to suggest parallels to what he sees as his country’s deteriorated social character, much in the same way that Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket drew from the same source to criticize postwar France.
But part of what makes Norte such an extraordinary achievement — and, at 250 minutes, a truly staggering, even overwhelming filmgoing experience — is that, for all its specificity to the Philippines, its thematic breadth is universal. Diaz is a patient, perceptive observer of life.
Norte tells a big story on a grand scale, but its emphasis, moment by moment, is on the quotidian. It’s simplicity that resonates most deeply of all.