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Norte, the End of History [Blu-ray]
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In this reimagining of Crime and Punishment, set in the northern Philippine province of Luzon, Fabian, a law-school drop-out, frustrated with his country's never-ending cycle of betrayal and apathy, commits a horrific double murder; a gentle family man, Joaquin, takes the blame and receives a life sentence, leaving behind his wife Eliza and two children, whilst Fabian roams free, and is taken over by evil. Joaquin is a simple man who finds life in prison more tolerable when something mysterious and strange starts happening to him.
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It uses a simple and liner story to metaphorically examine the turbulent, postcolonial history of a nation that has been but a puppet in the hands of western imperialism for over five centuries and has been struggling to find its own feet ever since. The characterisations of the film broadly represent disparate social groupings, which are the inevitable consequence of political mismanagement and civic neglect for decades. On one side of the spectrum is the highly educated elite. In spite of their privileged background and westernised outlook, they are armchair socialists who compensate for their apathy by indulgent political debate, ironically and quite irritatingly in a vernacular that is two-thirds English! On the other, are the impoverished masses who survive a hand to mouth existence, with no relief in sight. In between the two extremes are opportunists of various denominations. The interaction between these contrasting classes form the backbone of this captivating saga, while its potent, dramatic impact is derived from a brainless and bloody act committed by a nihilist amongst the upper echelon, that decimates a destitute but harmonious family.
Fabian, a law school dropout, is the nihilist who wants to end blaming the past for the nation’s ills and to start afresh, effectively contemplating ‘the end of history’. Despite being highly gifted and admired by his peers, he is a layabout living on borrowed money and time. Enraged by the apathy of his elite circle of friends to the contrasting poverty that surrounds them, he paradoxically commits a horrific crime. Instead of owning up to it, he hides behind his debonair façade, the outcome of which is an increasingly evil man torn between duty and deceit. Intriguingly, reasons as to his behaviour do not become clear until the very end of the film.
Joaquin, the head of an impoverished, but conscientious and loving family, is the innocent man who ends up being convicted and imprisoned for Fabian’s crime. Joaquin and his wife are the perfect antithesis to Fabian’s social class. In spite of the hopeless situation they find themselves in, they admirably get on with their lives industriously and compassionately, helping others where they can, instead of blaming anyone. It is this carefully construed, behavioural contrast between two classes of the same people that makes ’Norte’ a poignant and universally appreciable exploration of morality in a hierarchical society.
Archie Alemania as Joaquin and Angeli Bayani as his wife Eliza deliver the emotional core of the story with spellbinding performances, Bayani in particular being unforgettable in her sublimely nuanced role as a woman of exemplary strength and courage. The remaining performances are uniformly good, with some spectacular cameos.
The visual style of ‘Norte’ is quite similar to the work of Bruno Dumont, the movie being largely captured through exquisitely composed, static frames that last long enough to deeply engage the viewer with the characters and their surroundings. The effect of this is that the story progresses at a natural pace, realistic to the events in each sequence, making the film very long, but conceptually so. When the camera moves, it is slow and elegant much of the time, and is always for a valid reason. The only instances in which the camera movement is relatively fast are aerial shots captured by a drone to symbolise how Joaquin remains closely connected to his family and home in his imagination. These shaky takes unfortunately are inferior in quality to the principal photography, possibly as a result of cheaper technology. Despite such irregularities, ‘Norte’ is an outstanding achievement in the history of cinema, that should be an exhilarating source of inspiration for the budding filmmakers.
In short I might keep the blu-ray as a curiosity to revisit, but I won't be getting anything else by the director.
The story is actually quite simple, yet captivating. Several years elapse over the period of the film, although the exact shifts in time aren't specified or particularly obvious (the children growing older is the clearest indication of this.)
There are some beautiful shots. Diaz clearly likes long shots with minimal editing or camera movement, although there are some interesting aerial shots towards the end. There aren't many close ups, so as you're viewing everyone at middle distance it takes a while to recognise the faces of the characters.
A fascinating film and I hope more of his work becomes available on DVD in the future.
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