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.
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 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.