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Radical (In)Justice in Norte, the End of History

When creating a work of art that centers around morality or justice, juxtaposing perspectives between criminals and innocents can create an engaging experience. Just as novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky effectively utilized the concept of morality and an increasingly unhinged criminal main character in his late 1860s crime drama Crime and Punishment, Filipino auteur Lav Diaz creates a unique modern retelling of that same novel in his film Norte, the End of History (2013). Through shifting the novel’s time period to contemporary 2010s Philippines, Diaz tackles the issues of injustice and failing to create a moral society through the juxtaposition of main characters and scenes of suffering that take place throughout the film.

In the first few minutes, Diaz establishes the method of characterization and filmmaking present throughout the film. One of the main characters named Fabian (Sid Lucero), an ex-law student with financial problems, talks with Professors Moira (Raymond Lee) and Perry (Perry Dizon) over the concepts of morality and justice, with Fabian holding more radical ideals over enacting justice through killing those deemed “immoral”—such as molesting priests or abusive husbands—while the professors raise valid concerns over his extreme methods. This conversation scene, shot in a static long-take, slowly zooms in towards the table as the characters converse for several minutes, never cutting away from the group to do the typical shot/reverse shot that plagues conversation scenes in most films.

This slow-paced method of filmmaking has a greater strength in immersing the audience into the substantial dialogue presented throughout the film, as any editing techniques would distract the audience and result in a lack of focus. Furthermore, the visuals can still draw the audience into the conversation as well due to the image zooming in gradually, preventing the image from lacking any audience engagement as it isn’t just a visually bland still frame shot.

These scenes of heated conversations between Fabian and friends are juxtaposed with the daily routines of the other main characters Joaquin (Archie Alemania) and Eliza (Angeli Bayani) a poor working couple that has two children and has to deal with the physical injury of Joquin. Unlike Fabian, who has an innate desire to tackle conflicts both verbally and physically with his colleagues and friends as a single man with seemingly little responsibilities, Joaquin and his wife Eliza are much more defensive due to their impoverished lifestyle and need to raise their children. The vulnerability of Joaquin compared to Fabian is visually apparent throughout the film as he limps through the first hour and half of the movie due to a leg injury, compared to Fabian’s seemingly good health. In addition, as Joaquin is placed in prison due to being falsely accused of murder, he’s taunted and hazed in the brutal penitentiary where he’s both a witness and victim of brutal inmate assaults, while Fabian has little care for inciting conflict with others despite the repercussions he faces as a result.

A medium-shot in the hallway of a house showing the dead body of Magda (Mae Paner) lying by the doorway of her bedroom

Throughout the feature, Lav Diaz is able to expose the consequences faced by multiple parties due to the actions of a singular event. As Fabian decides to follow his extreme morality ideals and suddenly kill Magda (Mae Paner), a rude pawnbroker who Fabian and Joaquin both coincidentally owe money to, the sudden appearance of Magda’s young daughter Criselle (Julia Domingo) results in her brutal death by Fabian to eliminate any witnesses. This moment, along with the entirety of the film, is shot without a score to bring an artificial mood to the shocking scene and instead allows the audience to be horrified at the sudden violence due to the lack of any instrumental cue.

In addition to the lack of score, the camera is placed in the hallway with a slightly obscured view of Magda’s death and complete obscurity from Criselle’s death, making Fabian’s actions seem more realistic as the unbroken shot makes the kills feel slow and grueling due to a lack of editing or cuts. As a result of Fabian’s horrific action, an innocent young girl is murdered as Fabian becomes the ultimate immoral person that he described earlier in the movie, based on killing an innocent child, and Joaquin is accused of the crime due to a previous physical altercation with Magda, leading to a general atmosphere of suffering for the remaining runtime.

Just as Dostoyevsky’s novel followed the downward spiral of its criminal main character, the death of Magda and her daughter causes a tragic chain of events for all other main characters around them. Eliza and her two children are forced to survive without a reliable income, with Eliza roaming the countryside with a vegetable cart while her sister Ading (Hazel Orencio) takes care of them at home. Diaz exposes the grave nature of this situation as Eliza is noticeably tired in her movements and general attitude, reflecting a general weariness felt by the long-suffering poor people of the Philippines.

Eliza is also forced to push around a heavy and rustic cart as to sell food in order to earn eager payment to support her family, with the cart serving as a strong visual metaphor for the heavy burdens placed upon the poor in their daily routines to survive on a purely minimal basis with often strenuous conditions. Meanwhile, Joaquin is forced to spend his time in a hostile and uncaring penitentiary environment, where he is forced to deal with the brutality of prison life as an innocent man. The prison scenes are shown in grimy and gloomy conditions, highlighting the lack of potential healing for Joaquin as he deals with an environment that is decayed, similar to the tooth decay he feels while incarcerated. Joaquin is also shown to be physically reserved and isolated while in prison, reflecting the general isolation felt by his character against a world that falsely deems him evil for the deaths of Magda and her daughter.

As Joaquin and Eliza struggle to survive as a result of Fabian’s immoral actions, Fabian becomes increasingly unstable after the murders. A key highlight of his decreasing stability occurs as he enters a Christian support group where he expresses dismay over his brutal deeds before quickly leaving as he denies the concept of divine forgiveness. Just as Fabian was quick to conflict with his professors and law school peers over the ideals discussed between them and arrogantly thought he should be an arbitrator of justice, Fabian refuses reconciliation out that same prideful arrogance, further exposing his volatile tendencies through his boisterous physical and verbal actions. The combative nature of Fabian is further explored in his refusal to try any suggestion from possible friends or peers, further causing a cycle of isolation as he doesn’t return the favor towards potential companions with trying to genuinely improve himself throughout most of the film.

A medium shot of Joaquin (Archie Alemania) is escorted away from a house by a group of police while being held on his side by one of them

While Lav Diaz’s work is a challenge for those not used to inactive camera shots and scenes of plotless actions such as washing clothes or walking around a neighborhood, the dark atmosphere and main character of Fabian brings a rewarding viewing experience of violent and drastic actions in modern society. The characters recite the political turmoils of the Philippines that overshadow the country to this very day, and in these modern times where a country’s violent past causes intense and meaningful discourse, Diaz is able to use the framework of a classic Russian novel and seamlessly tie it into the Filipino experience. While people seek out fair and honest justice in the world today, Diaz’s film raises a valid concern in the extreme methods that can cause greater injustice as a result of an idealized morality quest.

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