New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center is launching Time Regained: The Films of Lav Diaz, the most complete American retrospective yet with a week-long run for Norte, the End of History (2013; see reviews from the Cannes and New York film festivals) beginning today and a screening of Melancholia (2008) on Sunday. That screening will begin at 1:15 in the afternoon; final credits should roll at around 8:45pm. The sheer length of most of Diaz‘s films must have figured into the FSLC’s scheduling of the series, which allows for a little breathing room between each marathon. There’ll be no more than one per month, but Time Regained will run through February.
“Diaz has produced his films independently since frustrations with his country’s studio system helped him to go his own way in the early 2000s,” writes Aaron Cutler for Artforum. And “as with Fyodor Dostoevsky—a writer whose work has been formative for Diaz—all the films’ characters give voice to their maker’s concerns. The weary police detective longing for the Philippines during his American self-exile in Batang West Side [screening on October 19]; the scarred young woman committed to preserving her life story for her daughter’s sake in 2012’s Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (screening November 30th); and the nomad seeking a purpose in 2006’s Heremias (Book One: The Legend of the Lizard Princess) (screening December 21st) are just three examples of figures embodying struggles that Diaz has felt, believes that others feel, and hopes to share. They are—as Gilles Deleuze once described Dostoevsky’s people—’engaged in impossible situations’ that form the facts of life. And regarding the series’ closing film, 2005’s Evolution of a Filipino Family (screening January 24th and 25th, 2015), I will say only this: It’s worth the wait.”
Writing for Film Comment, Jonathan Romney argues that “length alone is not necessarily these films’ defining element. What’s distinctive is the way that Diaz balances design and contingency, so that a film’s duration emerges from the play of these elements. If I remember correctly Diaz’s description of his methods when he came to Britain two years ago to the AV Festival in Tyneside, his films are unusually open to chance: if characters come and go as though following their own unpredictable will, sometimes disappearing abruptly from the action, it’s often because an actor will drop out unexpectedly in mid-shoot (and these shoots can be both fragmentary and very extended) and the film will have to accommodate that. What’s more, Diaz has a cavalier attitude to scripts: Norte, for example, began with a structured script (it’s credited to the director and Rody Vera) but Diaz would write new material before each day’s shooting.”
“Norte is based, loosely but recognizably, on Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment,” notes A. O. Scott in the New York Times, “and its duration is analogous to the novel’s thickness. A simple act—the murder of a moneylender by a disaffected intellectual—becomes the center of a large and layered narrative, the focal point through which an entire world comes into view. The killing doesn’t take place right away. We need to be calmed—to absorb the rhythms of life in a coastal city in the northern Philippines—before we can be shocked.”
Norte “spends its first hour introducing us to its dual protagonists, two men who seem to have nothing in common other than the happenstance of living in the same area,” writes Peter Sobczynski at RogerEbert.com. “Fabian (Sid Lucerio) is a smug, self-absorbed twerp of privilege in his early thirties who was a promising law student until dropping out for vaguely defined reasons and who now delivers endless lectures on his sub-Nietzchian theories of the world in coffee house bull sessions with former classmates before hitting them up for rent money. Joaquin (Archie Alemania), on the other hand, is a poor but noble type with a loving wife, Eliza (Angeli Bayani), and two kids whose simple dream of opening a cafe is threatened when a serious leg injury decimates his savings. The other thing that the two men have in common is that they are both in serious arrears to local money lender Magda (Mae Paner).”
“The scene where Magda is killed is not particularly complex, but it raises a host of philosophical issues that I often consider when thinking about the proper way to film a scene,” notes Zachary Wigon at the Talkhouse Film (Wigon’s The Heart Machine screens tomorrow at BAMcinemaFest). “Does the choice to have the murders committed mostly offscreen mean that we engage less with what is occurring, since we sense it less, and are therefore less horrified by the act? Or are we more horrified, since we are objective observers looking at Fabian’s behavior, rather than being given the opportunity to identify with his murderous desires (as so many horror films allow us to do)?… This, I believe, is the central paradox of cinema: as audience members, we want to watch, we want to see; but only that which remains off camera can be subjected fully to the power of the human imagination. Like what Nietzsche wrote about naming something—and in the process of naming it, stripping it of its power—with cinema, that which is made visible loses the limitless potential for meaning it is capable of being imbued with by the human imagination.”
“For three hours,” writes the Dissolve‘s Scott Tobias, Norte “feels close to the masterpiece many claim it is… Then in the fourth hour, it becomes something far more familiar, the sort of sex-and-death master-shot cinema practiced by early Bruno Dumont or Carlos Reygadas, with the obligatory nod to the Transcendent. What once seemed complex turns reductive; what once seemed singular turns almost formulaic. It’s not like Diaz’s formidable artistry abandons him—every composition is balanced and mount-on-the-wall evocative, and his sound often has a three-dimensional lushness—but Norte is the rare film where the characters seem simpler the longer we spend time with them. They’re humans that evolve into types.”
“Norte tells a big story on a grand scale, but its emphasis, moment by moment, is on the quotidian,” writes Calum Marsh in the Voice. “It’s simplicity that resonates most deeply of all.”
Update: “Norte is both a radical departure for Diaz and a perfect gateway into the director’s work,” writes Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the AV Club. “For one, it’s conventionally handsome… It’s shot in richly textured widescreen, and shaped by gradual, choreographed camera movements…. As in the director’s other major works, fractured families and Filipino history become intertwined with a sense of metaphysical transformation. These ideas grow and become palpable within long takes, which have the precise descriptive power of 19th-century realist fiction, conveying something more than a narrative—a view of society and human nature, the sort of thing that takes time.”
Update, 6/21: David Phelps, writing in the Notebook, has his problems with both Diaz and Norte:
Montage, pacing, gesture, psychology, plotting, social document—all televisual properties serve to identify and support the theme coherently, and in classical terms, one gets the familiar cinematic satisfaction of knowing that the Puritans were right after all. Yet no property is more important to Diaz’s Passion Play than duration. Here is the ultimate buttress for his simulated improvisations: for how much more impressively improvised they must seem in a nine minute take than a mere two. But more importantly, here is the instrument to redeem spectacle from the random-shot-generator-cutting of the blockbusters. After all, Diaz’s embrace (like Jia Zhang-ke‘s) of a mobile camera and exploitation stories suggests that “contemplative” cinema has probably never really been a reproof to Hollywood spectacle and suspense, so much as it’s been an extension of spectacle by other means.
Update, 6/26: “Truth and meaning, the sacred and profane, society and the family—all are philosophical notions discussed figuratively and literally in the frameworks of Diaz’s latest, but not to the radical effect that this may imply. Instead, the banality of life and the dreadful, sometimes excruciating passage of time devours all.” Four out of five stars for Norte from Nicholas Bell at Ioncinema.
Updates, 7/18: Diaz’s new film, From What Is Before (Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon) has “won the grand prize in the ongoing World Premieres Film Festival by the Film Development Council of the Philippines,” notes Oggs Cruz. It’s five-and-a-half hours long, set to screen in competition at Locarno and “works best as an allegory. The events that happen in the small town, although specified as though they have happened a couple of years prior to the Ferdinand Marcos’s Martial Law pronouncement, mirror the vast history of the Philippines as a nation. From the pertinent connection of the people with the land to that connection’s slow but sure dissipation because of the subtle entry of religion and politics, the town’s harrowing experiences evoke a certain sense of familiarity that is discomforting…. What Diaz has done is to distil centuries of the country’s sorrows and agonies into a fascinatingly fractured narrative that will never ever leave you.”
Meantime, Norte has opened in the UK and, writing for Sight & Sound, Adrian Martin notes that the “very title alludes to those church cults, rife in the Philippines, that preach the coming end of the world (just as Fabian preaches a more secular ‘end of history’), amounting to just another desperate dream of escape from pressing, real-world problems. Diaz is a humanist with a lucid, materialist view of how his society works—and it is this friction between humanist hope and materialist pessimism that drives and structures his work.”
For Adam Nayman, writing for Little White Lies, “part of what’s so compelling about Norte is how it places what is basically a potboiler plot inside a contemplative artistic space and integrates the two modes at what feels like a molecular level.”
More from Nigel Andrews (Financial Times, 3/5), Peter Bradshaw (Guardian, 5/5), David Fear (Time Out, 5/5), Graham Fuller (Arts Desk), Mark Kermode (Observer, 3/5) and Tim Robey (Telegraph, 5/5: “The story sprawls, but it also rivets”).
Update, 7/25: “Diaz’s work is far from perfect, and his arty faith in the power of the rigorous long take can occasionally be maddening,” writes Bilge Ebiri for the Nashville Scene. “But that only makes it all the more imperative to see a film like Norte, the End of History on the biggest possible screen. Both in their grandeur and in their willingness to dwell on issues relating to morality and the spirit, these are images and themes best suited for the great cathedral of cinema.”
Update, 8/9: Now that From What Is Before is screening in Competition in Locarno, we’re gathering new reviews here.