For someone who clings desperately to absolutes, Fabian (Sid Lucero), one of three central characters in the Filipino film Norte, the End of History, is remarkably prone to getting stuck in the moral murk. "If we really want to clean up society," Fabian proposes at one point, "the solution is simple. Kill all the bad elements." Only a few scenes earlier, though, he was debating the ethics of sleeping with his friend's girlfriend, albeit somewhat belatedly — he had already done it.
Fabian stands apart among his friends, who are evidently in awe of his intellect even as they laugh off his more frightening pronouncements. They discuss theory with the casual tone of grad school intellectuals, switching easily from political analysis to humorous pop culture references. (They're all law school students except for Fabian, who, to the dismay of his colleagues, dropped out.) But you can tell that Fabian's ideas about justice and morality are far more than debating topics that he throws around with friends, one of whom at one point warns him: "You take our discourses too seriously."
In the long dialogue scenes that dominate director Lav Diaz's marathon film, Fabian is often steps removed physically from the rest of the group, and he is also detached from the audience, filmed almost exclusively in long shots. And it's that distance — from his friends and increasingly from humanity in general — that pushes Fabian to violence. After watching a homeless woman's attempts to sell goods to Magda (Mae Paner), the town's pawnbroker and moneylender, get summarily rebuffed, Fabian sees not two women but an example of the injustice he has vowed to remove from this earth. When he kills Magda and her daughter, one can imagine that, in his mind, the act seems like a valiant shift from theory to praxis.
Norte liberally adapts Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, and, like Raskolnikov in the novel, Fabian doesn't get arrested for his crime. Rather, it's Joaquin (Archie Alemania), a poor villager whose family was heavily in debt to Magda, who is imprisoned, leaving his wife, Eliza (a standout Angeli Bayani), to take care of a younger sister and two children.
Norte is not a film about jurisprudence. Even with a running time of over four hours, it gives barely a few minutes' attention to Joaquin's false arrest and conviction; it's more interested in pushing forward to explore the consequences of that fact. Nor is Diaz interested in justice, really; after Joaquin's conviction, any chances that the decision can be overturned are quickly dismissed. All in all, Diaz seems fairly convinced that more often than not, justice will not be done.
Instead, Norte is intent on providing exactly what Fabian is incapable of: a focus on individuals rather than concepts. The film's opening scene — an extended discussion on political theory — appears to foretell a largely intellectual exercise, but Norte in fact portrays how morality and ethics are lived rather than how they're thought up.
Joaquin, Eliza and Fabian could be seen as expressions of three different moral characters. In jail, Joaquin suffers from cruel mistreatment, particularly from a sadistic fellow prisoner named Wakwak (Soliman Cruz). But even in such conditions, Joaquin displays hope, whether in the distant possibility of a presidential pardon or in the sustained belief that good actions can bring positive rewards.
In Eliza, whose storyline most benefits from Diaz's patience and careful observation, we observe the persistence required to live with inequity. In the aftermath of Joaquin's arrest, Eliza makes a meager living carting around and selling vegetables to villagers. At one point, in a lengthy shot, Eliza stands a few meters from her sister and daughters after visiting Joaquin in jail. Tears well as she looks past the camera, first toward the bus carrying Joaquin to a different, distant penitentiary, and then, once the bus is long gone, toward the years ahead, which promise only bare survival from ceaseless work. In a tense shot a few moments later, the accumulated drudgery of daily life that Diaz has focused reveals a profound despair — a hopelessness that can only be surrendered to or survived through perseverance.
Eliza's quiet desperation contrasts with Fabian's tormented bout of conscience following the murder. Fabian's plotline provides fewer rewards than Eliza's or Joaquin's sections, but that's largely because Fabian is a vehicle for Diaz's cynicism. If Eliza is a testament to resilience and Joaquin a vision of incorruptible goodness, Fabian is a reminder that neither of those qualities win out in this world. At most, the dark night of the soul that Fabian can't shake off supports the idea that injustice irreparably corrupts the individual, even if he seemingly goes unpunished for his crimes. But that's a source of little solace in a film that over time bares an increasingly pessimistic worldview.
The only major fault with Norte is that, even as it sprawls over four hours — filming meals at their full duration and silence for long spells — its architecture often feels too neat: Fabian hopelessly seeks forgiveness for his crime at a Christian group meeting while, in jail, Joaquin offers a very Christian form of forgiveness to his sadistic prison inmate when the latter falls ill. Eliza wonders whether her family would have been better off had she and Joaquin decided to work abroad to better provide for their children; then, shortly after, Fabian blames his parents for doing that very thing, leaving him and his sister to be raised by maids.
With these parallels, Norte risks succumbing to the same kind of absolute dichotomies — good and evil, poor and rich — that destroy Fabian. The fact that it doesn't is largely due to how Diaz combines intellectual ambition with intimacy of storytelling. Norte is formidable cinema that doesn't shy away from exploring history, philosophy, politics and religion at length. But it's also a story of three individuals, through whom these topics gain sharper focus. In other words, Diaz may preach the importance of ideas, but he knows they can't be examined in isolation. After all, ideas have a way of seeming clear and absolute before you put them through life's wringer. Later, all that's left is murk.