Lav Diaz “has made twelve films since starting out in 1998, but given that his works generally run in excess of six hours, he’s cobbled together an output that most filmmakers wouldn’t near if they’d made thirty regular-sized movies,” writes Jeff Reichert in Reverse Shot. “His latest, the trim-at-four-hours Norte, the End of History, following a tremendous reception at Cannes, now comes to the New York Film Festival, and as of this writing has just been picked up for honest-to-goodness theatrical distribution by the intrepid lunatics over at Cinema Guild. All extant writing on Diaz suggests a coherent, cogent, and highly daunting (his Evolution of a Filipino Family runs over eleven hours, and he often shoots in murky black-and-white digital video) body of work deeply concerned with Filipino history and identity and heavily inflected by brushes with the Western canon, especially Dostoevsky. Though several of his films skirt around and pick up themes and situations from the Russian author’s most venerated work, Norte is Diaz’s first full-throated stab at Crime and Punishment.”
“Measured even in its despair, Norte ponders the existence of evil in the Philippines,” writes J. Hoberman at Artinfo. “‘This is the new politics’ are this strong and baffling movie’s first words as Diaz’s anti-hero Fabian, a know-it-all nihilist and law school dropout, takes it upon himself to ‘educate’ his former colleagues. Fabian is the movie’s Raskolnikov [… and his] double is the luckless street vendor Joaquin who, an hour into the movie, takes the rap when Fabian takes it into his head to murder the requisite overbearing money-lender to whom they both owe money, as well as her young daughter. Joaquin is railroaded. Enjoying his freedom, Fabian goes on a prolonged, multifarious bender that’s cross-cut with the sufferings of the wrongly jailed man and his impoverished family. Years pass and you can feel them, before Fabian appears out of the shadows to share screen space with Joaquin’s wife. Shot in wide-screen and hyper-sharp HD color (a first for Diaz), this morality play is at once chaste and posh. The mise-en-scene has intimations of ’50s melodrama but there is no music. As a filmmaker, Diaz suggests a naturalized Fassbinder.”
“Joaquin, as it turns out, is the film’s equivalent of Nikolai Dementiev, a member of a religious sect that believes in salvation through suffering for another’s crime,” writes Noel Vera in Film Comment. “Diaz takes Dementiev’s minor episode in the novel, retools the character (subtracting the crackpot fanaticism, which he saves for someone else) and sets up his narrative as a counterpoint to Fabian’s, incorporating a short story by another great Russian writer, namely Tolstoy’s ‘God Sees the Truth, But Waits,’ in which a man is wrongly exiled to Siberia for murder…. Where Dostoevsky’s novel concentrated on one man, Diaz’s film is a study in contrast between a good man’s climb to redemption and a bad man’s descent into damnation.”
“Always solemn but never turgid,” wrote Boris Nelepo for Cinema Scope this summer, “Diaz juxtaposes the intellectual and the common man in Norte with peerless elegance, which has the effect of toning down what might otherwise be portentous rhetoric, and elevating his storytelling above the level of cliché…. An endangered species, Diaz makes a point to treat cinema as a complex, multifaceted art form in which sensual, intellectual, and sacred experiences are inextricably linked.”
Writing for Filmmaker, Vadim Rizov notes that “if (as colleague David Phelps proposed) Diaz is a sort of exploitation artist whose work seems repeatedly drawn to emotional extremes incited by murder, rape et al., it’s also true his vision of Filipino society as a constant atrocity exhibition has empirical sources…. Diaz is a formidable talent, eliciting flawlessly naturalistic performances and exhibiting casual visual panache. At 250 minutes, Norte is extremely watchable, and there’s the rub: it’s reasonable to expect transcendence at that sustained length, but instead we get a relatively straightforward tract on political abuses, Christian dogma and social inequity in Filipino society.”
But the New York Times‘ Manohla Dargis admires the way Diaz “takes his time (and yours) to move in and around spaces rather than skipping through them, to accumulate details and play with ordinary daily rhythms. At once lifelike and a scrupulous imitation of life, the movie turns time into a bridge that allows you to cross into the lives of others.”
More here in Keyframe from Michael Sicinski; and Anna Tatarska interviewed Diaz for Keyframe in May. Norte is one of six films Peter Labuza and Carson Lund discuss in the first Cinephiliacs NYFF podcast. After its premiere in Cannes, Norte screened in the Masters program in Toronto and sees one showing in New York: Sunday, September 29, 11:30 am.
Updates, 10/5: “The thematic ambition and complexity of Lav Diaz’s Norte, the End of History is simply astonishing,” begins Larry Gross in a series of notes (four numbered paragraphs) for Film Comment. The second note’s on Dostoevsky. The third: “Diaz has a visual-narrative style that is unique in its diversity and strangeness.” And the fourth: “I will hazard one more hypothesis about how to think about Diaz’s style which I can only characterize as uncanny.”
“Ultimately, there’s a cautionary tale at work here about the perils of submitting too wholeheartedly to any ideology,” writes Carson Lund at In Review Online, “but any whiffs of schematism—most notably, an Andrei Tarkovsky-like levitation shot that heavy-handedly cements Joaquin’s saintliness—are thankfully overwhelmed by Diaz’s level-headed approach to the drama, a careful mix of humanism and moral responsibility that is reflected in images of beauty and squalor, closeness and depth, myth and mundanity.”
“Interested less in a few major events than in the ongoing banality which surrounds them, [Diaz] trains his camera on the quiet rhythms of unglamorous routine, lingering on his characters as they wearily go through the motions of another day.” Calum Marsh for Slant: “His long takes—often tracking or zooming toward their subject, so slowly the effect is almost imperceptible—sop up the detail of fully realized lives that, though punctured by tragedy, have to keep going. The film derives much of its effect from the passage of time.”
Update, 10/14: In Norte, R. Emmet Sweeney, writing for Movie Morlocks, has seen “a wide swathe of Filipino society, from lawyers’ cafe bull sessions to working class dinner preperation, all captured in Diaz’s patient long takes. There is a palpable tension as the two narrative lines bend towards each other, their joining a flashpoint that might put an end to it all.”
Update, 10/17: Michael Guarneri has a good long talk with Diaz for La Furia Umana.