In ‘Norte,’ a moral compass lost
That Fyodor Dostoevsky was on to something when he came up with his antihero Raskolnikov. Probably every generation since “Crime and Punishment” was first published in 1866 has spawned a version of that aspiring nihilist torn by “strange, half-formed ideas,” as Dostoevsky put it. And the world is probably not a better place because of it.
In Philippine director Lav Diaz’s four-hour moral diptych titled “Norte, the End of History,” the young man is Fabian (Sid Lucero), a promising former law student who dropped out before getting his degree. Now he spends time in the cafe drinking beer with his former classmates, spinning out his theories of anarchy and Nietzschean nihilism and how the total freedom of the individual is more important than the law, or revolution, or good and evil. Or inverting his philosophy and declaring that there is evil and we are duty-bound to exterminate the evildoers.
His friends don’t know whether to take him seriously, but they are fascinated and amused. They buy him another beer and lend him money to pay his rent.
Meanwhile, hobbling on crutches because of an unnamed misfortune, Joachim (Archie Alemania) and his wife, Eliza (Angeli Bayani), and kids make their way home down a greasy alley half-heartedly lit by Christmas lights. Devoted to his family, hard-working, God-fearing, and in every way the antithesis of Fabian, Joachim seethes because he can’t care for his family. Eliza has to pawn their possessions, including her jewelry, to Magda (Mae Paner), the local moneylender.
Fabian also has tapped Magda for loans, and to put his übermensch philosophy to the test he robs Magda and murders her and her daughter (all the violence in the film takes place off-screen, and is more powerful because of it). But the police nab Joachim for the crime, compel him to plead guilty, and put him away for life.
The rest of the film follows the intersecting fates of Joachim and his family, and Fabian. Joachim achieves a kind of saintliness while in prison — in one gut-wrenching scene he nurses back to health a former tormentor.
Fabian, on the other hand, longs for forgiveness but will not ask for it. He tracks down Joachim’s wife, gives her the money from the robbery, and coaxes his former classmates to reopen Joachim’s case. But redemption eludes him and his sanity crumbles.
“Norte” (the title refers to the province of Ilocos Norte where the story is set, and also where the dictator Ferdinand Marcos came from) is a political and spiritual parable, but related with such subtle realism and incantatory rhythms that it is far more mysterious than didactic. Silent moments linger in long uncut scenes and years melt away imperceptibly. Images convey confinement and release: Fabian at night burying his stash in an empty lot evokes the uncanniness of a Universal horror movie; shots of lush scenery mitigate the poverty of those who live nearby; and windows, doorways and fences frame characters, underscoring their confinement.
Some might find the dual conclusions too blunt in their irony, but “Norte” does not try to be consoling. Crazy as Fabian’s ideas seem, they might be the ones that prevail.