The pivotal event in “Norte, the End of History” is derived from “Crime and Punishment,” but that Russian novel and this Filipino epic pursue different ends. Where Dostoevsky sought to redeem his nihilistic central character, “Norte” director and co-writer Lav Diaz sees no apparent hope for his.
“Norte” is more than four hours and challengingly austere by Hollywood standards. Yet it’s easier to watch than the work of many “slow cinema” stars whose films are hailed at international festivals. The story has forward momentum, and the near-static interludes that punctuate it are beautifully composed and photographed. Diaz deplores the poverty of Ilocos Norte, the Philippines’ northernmost province, but he doesn’t deny the remote area’s beauty.
The movie opens with a cafe conversation that could occur in nearly any American college town. (Indeed, much of the movie takes place in English.) Alienated law-school dropout Fabian (Sid Lucero) argues that “Truth is dead. So is meaning.”
“You’re a reactionary,” responds one of his friends. “Or maybe just a criminal.”
Fabian eventually proves that rebuke correct with the off-camera murder of miserly local loanshark Magda (Mae Paner) and her teenage daughter. As in “Crime and Punishment,” the slayings are blamed on an innocent man, Joaquin (Archie Alemania), who has a motive: After suffering a serious injury to his leg, he and his wife, Eliza (Angeli Bayani), borrowed heavily from Magda.
Dostoevsky’s novel is something of a detective story, featuring a policeman who suspects the killer even after the case is officially closed. Diaz never introduces an equivalent to that character. Instead, he gives equal time to Fabian, Joaquin and Eliza.
During the movie’s third hour, in fact, the killer largely vanishes. Joaquin adapts to prison and Eliza sells vegetables and does laundry to support their two children, who age four years over the course of the tale.
This chapter includes some stunning scenes, including Eliza’s contemplating suicide and Joaquin’s Christmas in prison, where presents are distributed by a psychotic bully who sings “O Holy Night” off-key.
When Fabian returns to the screen, now with a beard and paunch, he seems mellowed. But he still has violence in him, and some of his acts are bewilderingly unmotivated. The fourth hour also includes a supernatural moment that fails to convince, despite all the spiritual foreshadowing.
The lack of a compelling payoff is a serious defect in a movie that demands its viewers undergo three hours of setup. But most of that time is fascinating, both for the depiction of the Philippines’ polyglot culture and because of the elegantly crafted sound and visuals. If the movie’s universal themes don’t impress, its specific details do.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
★ ★ ★
Unrated. At West End Cinema. Contains violence, sexual situations, partial nudity and profanity. In English and Tagalong with subtitles. 250 minutes.