A four-hour film that’s an epic fail
Movie Review of Norte: The End of History
By Dyan Ruiz
When I heard that the Filipino film, Norte: the End of History, is four hours long, I thought there must be something special about it. The scenes must be gripping, the work, a cinematic masterpiece if its director, producer and well, bankrollers think it’s worth someone’s time to watch for four hours.
I honestly don’t know what they were thinking, or what possessed the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) to put Norte among their selection of works by “Masters” this September.
The North American premiere of the film was lauded in the TIFF synopsis as “an astonishing and deeply mature piece of work” and counts Norte as “among the finest works to emerge from the Philippine New Wave.” According to this synopsis, the Philippine New Wave stresses realism and modernism while incorporating tough social criticism.
Ok. I’m all for that. But if this is how it manifests through a film like Norte where the viewer is asked to sit through four hours of scene after scene that go on too long, with sparse and uninspired dialogue and no variation in the shots, then I don’t think I ever want to watch another Philippine New Wave film.
Maybe I’m missing something that would take an advanced film degree to understand. Certainly, the writer in the magazine Cinema Scope, Boris Nelepo, seemed to get what Diaz was doing in Norte, referencing past films of his in his review that are also based on works by Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Apparently, Norte represents newfound brevity for Diaz. One of his films runs 11 hours long and another Melancholia runs eight hours long.
Norte explores morality and the corruption of the Filipino society where the elite get away with murder and the impoverished get entangled in the vile and unjust system with no escape. It does so by following three main characters in parallel, a law school drop, Fabian, who impresses his friends and former teachers with his rants about tearing down and escaping the corrupt system. Most of the time it sounds like a bunch of progressives after too many drinks and they’ve stumbled upon a discussion of Philippine icons like Jose Rizal and Andres Bonifacio.
Then there’s a poor family that falls deeper into a life of struggle when the father and husband, Joaquin, is wrongly accused for murders that Fabian committed. As Fabian completely turns his drunken musings with his academic friends into action and abandons all notions of morality, Joaquin and his wife must deal with the day-to-day of life in prison, and toiling for a meager living.
The dual plots are a nod to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, but this whole plot could have easily been told in two hours or less. Instead the viewer must sit through excruciatingly long, single angle shots of scenery or mundane everyday scenes of people eating with no dialogue. Every single scene is filmed with no close-up shots and nearly all shots are wide, not close enough to see much emotion on the faces of the actors.
The director has explained his style as an escape from artifice. The length of his films allows for the natural progression of its characters. Fair enough. But who really is going to sit through this film and enjoy it? The noble but ultimately damned working class? Absolutely not! They’ve got better things to do. Plus there are many legendary films that develop characters far more effectively in an hour and a half. It’s the highly educated and privileged set of society that Diaz loathes, who could be the only ones to appreciate this film.
Despite the fact that his film demanded four hours of my time, Diaz could not condescend to an interview with me after many attempts, including one cancelled appointment. Diaz refused to be interviewed for this article to explain what he was thinking and he did not answer questions via email when he agreed he would.
You could watch Norte and see for yourself what he’s trying to get at, or you can just look out your window for fours hours and see reality pass you by.