Reaching the End of Sanity, the Limits of History

07 Mar

Review of Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan (Lav Diaz, 2013)

JPaul S. Manzanilla

It is difficult to pass judgment on something that not only refuses to be judged but places the capacity for judgment on the Solomonic table to begin with. For all its (non)intents and purposes, Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan offers a much denser and perplexing take on the nature of reason and madness, crime and punishment, goodness and evil that lurk and, also, dwell within the human in all of us.

We follow the life of Fabian as he tries to get away from the burden of family and education. He intellectualizes on man’s existence and pontificates on the country’s politics and society along with his friends, fellow law students set to be future cogwheels of the nation’s legal bureaucratic machine. Parallel to his life’s movement is Joaquin, he who is a have-not trying with his wife to feed their family. Fabian tries to write a masterpiece but eventually surrenders to the incompatibility and the failure of this world to his mind’s design. Joaquin became victim of the justice system as he suffers from being blamed for a crime. Eliza, Joaquin’s wife traverses the difficult condition of making ends meet and understanding the ends of their lives.

Many of the scenes are standard, normal fares, passages that are too ordinary that they run against the mainstream blueprint of maximizing film’s precious time-space to show only the dramatic, the spectacular, the eye-popping. Yet for this viewer Fabian’s banter with his barkada, Eliza’s hawking of vegetables in the neighborhood, and the tedium of rural life are all necessary to bear out their living conditions before the story plunges us into the depths of their despicable lives, only to show that vileness is not the climax but their everyday. Herein lies Norte’s promise and disappointment and we need to examine our structure of feeling. If evil were just around the corner and suddenly arrives on our doorstep, we would be surprised. But evil dwells within, resting for a while, nurturing itself, and then it pounces us when we’re least defended because we thought that it is exterior to ourselves; only the dead is safe from its menacing victory. At times, one envies how the murdered ones are finally free from the devil’s grasp. A Dostoyevskyan theme is cogent in a Third World polity such as the Philippines since, like the great author’s environment, the nation is full of contemptible inequality, psycho-sexual because economic and political.

Norte 8a

To our wonder, the film also views the setting from above, using a drone to capture the geography of its characters’ spaces, thereby complementing its probing of mind’s dark interiors. Somehow the vistas appear as flights of fancy, even a loss of consciousness, and then the camera takes us back to the rough grounds of living once again. Joaquin’s movement from the provincial prison cell to the national penitentiary is the height of injustice, which leads us to supreme irony: as Fabian continues to freely explore his psychosis, he is further entrapped inside his terrifying life-world as the guilt of non-punishment torments him; Joaquin then gradually liberates himself from anger and madness brought about by human oppression. This transcendence is utopian, but human, all too human.

Even religion is not safe, as it should, from the merciless hand of the filmmakers. Fabian could not find salvation from the Bible study group that offered transcendence while his sister became patently insane in her pastoral and ultra-religious dreamland. Diaz and co-writer Rody Vera are even playing Engels here in imagining the continuity of property accumulation, monogamous family, and state security on the verge of self-destruction. The child who robotically sings Pamulinawen spites the cruelty of her mother and the tender loving song holds a macabre quality: having genuine love, punishing one completely, and pining for the end of misery. Pairing wealth with wickedness and poverty with principle is dangerously Manichaean. It promotes the perpetuity of inequity.

Is the film a critique of the failures of the nation’s intelligentsia? Would life without this intellectual class be beneficial to the country? The reference to Marcos is not contrived, with the North as setting denoting the dictator’s bastion, and the would-be bar topnotcher/murderous law student drop-out in some way exemplifying the country’s most intelligent president. Just when we thought that we have recovered from the murder of Magda, Fabian later on rapes his sister, and kills his pet dog. Does reason exceeding “boundaries”—reason gone wrong and berserk—ultimately become fascistic and therefore lead to our collective destruction, the limits of history? Should we then favor the intelligence of the subaltern here, they from below who simply live and die and whose lives go unremarked? What we need to assail here is the messianic complex of Fabian and his lot first seen in Fabian who take the law into his own hands by killing Joaquin’s exploiter, thereby leading to the latter’s imprisonment, and second, in his buddies who try to revive the legal case of injustice, not knowing that it is one of them who caused Joaquin’s suffering in the first place. Joaquin’s fate has been determined by the depravity of Fabian. Amidst all these, the character of Eliza probes the limits of personal justice and temperance. Who will save him—and us—from the law?

Norte’s cynical take on humanity imaginably approaches the sophistication of cinematic production. The refusal of closure characteristic of recent and mainly independent filmmaking, is arguably a refusal of packaged solutions to complex problems. It is, however, an admission that, in this time, a resolution of contradictions is becoming more and more difficult, if not impossible, even within the ambitions of the filmic narrative.  We may learn productively from how it breaches the purpose, end, and death of a putative history.

JPaul Manzanilla Picture for AdMU SoSSJPaul S. Manzanilla teaches in the Department of History of the Ateneo de Manila University. He earned degrees in comparative literature and art history from the University of the Philippines and is engaged in research on the histories of photography, cinema, and television in the country.


Posted by on 07 March 2015 in Film Review, Philippine Film


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13 responses to “Reaching the End of Sanity, the Limits of History

  1. Renan Laru-an

    16 March 2015 at 3:01 AM

    JPaul, as you suggested, posting some thoughts I initially shared with you. Looking forward to reading notes from interested individuals. – Renan

    I found myself returning to some of the points you articulated in your essay Reaching the End of Sanity, the Limits of History. I was particularly drawn into the way you teased out the intersection of new visual technology (i.e. drones), the construction of “beginning narratives” and the juridical-oratorical modes of address in the film.

    In the section where you noted how the technology surveys the geography of the characters’ spaces, I couldn’t help but wonder how operational images utilized in cinema have been used to reinforce a contrast with images taken from the ground (to institute contrast), producing new forms of virtuality within the cinematic space. In Hito Steyerl’s body of works, which includes production of film essays, video art, and theoretical propositions in the forms of lecture and writing, she has been thinking about the (contemporary) points of reference for our visuality, especially the notion of horizon. Steyerl, who also refers and perhaps continues the theoretical works of artist Harun Farocki, points us to a kind of complicity– so subtle and sophisticated to recognize (yet so thick/multilayered), that ultimately reproduces what she calls as the wretchedness of the screen. I am wondering if we could accommodate Norte in this problematization and how it could enrich the discourse on visuality. What registers can we enter into when we throw it into this set of questions? And this is probably unnecessary, what are Diaz’s points of reference in his project of looking (into)?

    While Diaz’ works have always been attached to duration, that is slowness, there seems to be a process of privileging a specific mode of looking here where movement is only visible when it is slowed down. I guess this is where the virtual bodies and speeches (can) betray the cinematic medium. In providing an occasion for the subaltern to speak, moving images and images here construct a temporary juridico-oratorical space for performing lives that are dispossessed by law and that are made beholden by law. But what happens after declaiming these lives that are pre-supposed? How do images reclaim their juridico-oratorical space again? Can they access it in the next project by the artist? While these points may be too perverse to rehearse within Norte’s scope, with the working space that the filmmaker allows himself to, perhaps it is urgent to talk about aesthetic responsibility?

    And this is where I reconnect with my point on “beginning narratives” or simply “beginnings”. I am wondering if we can read Diaz’s works including Norte as a project of constructing a series of beginnings. I can sense the political imagination of this project as a way of constituting new ways of apprehending the crisis of representation and articulating narratives. Here, we can then accommodate these works as long fragments that remain as short critiques. As a practice of critique, how can we imagine and promote the form of visuality and virtuality that Diaz produces in terms of recomposing other critical strategies and tactics?


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