Review: Lav Diaz's 'Norte' is not for everyone

By Fred Hawson

Posted at Sep 12 2014 03:07 PM | Updated as of Sep 12 2014 11:07 PM

Finally! Today, I can now say that I have seen a Lav Diaz film.

Since his multi-awarded "Batang West Side" in 2001, Mr. Diaz has built a name directing artistic opuses that run much much longer than usual feature films, usually more than five hours. His longest was "Evolution of a Filipino Family" in 2004, which clocked at a whopping 11 and a half hours! Running for about 4 hours, "Norte" is fondly referred to as Mr. Diaz's "short" film, and therefore the most accessible of all his films.

"Norte" is set in the northern province of Ilocos Norte. Fabian Viduya (Sid Lucero) was a topnotch law student who quit law school because of his highfalutin philosophical ideas of a society beyond existentialism and anarchy. Joaquin (Archie Alemania) and Eliza (Agnes Bayani) were a poor couple whose dreams of building their own eatery business are dashed when Joaquin suffers a leg injury and they fell deep into debt.

After a heinous crime was committed in their small town of La Paz, these lives of these three people intersected and were thrown into a major maelstrom. These events happened in just in the first hour, the rest of the next three hours follows what happens to each of these three characters following that cruelly fateful day.

I will not pretend and say that I did not feel the four hours. I did feel the length of the film with those static shots that seemed to be showing nothing in particular or the very slow telling of events with several details that seemed like they would have been edited out in usual film. However, each of these scenes would usually precede a scene of big importance, building up the suspense very effectively.

Sid Lucero got put through the proverbial wringer as an actor for his role as Fabian. You'll admire him. You'll pity him. You'll hate him. You'll fear him. This is such a complex role and Lucero was more than up to the task. He had so many highlights -- the drinking session with friends, the prayer meeting, the scene with the dog Yumi. "Norte" is Fabian's story. It was his actions that mess the other characters' lives around. For a super-complex character like Fabian, the four hours was not even enough to get to know his innermost core that drove him to do the things he did. Fabian is a big question mark up to his very last scene.

Angeli Bayani has taken over roles that would probably been given to a young Ms. Nora Aunor. Even if her character barely spoke, it was her eyes and her face that talked to us. Her scenes with Archie Alemania are tearjerkers even without any words nor music to build up the moment. Her back was even turned to us, yet their love was so deeply felt by us. There was also that ominous scene with her kids over a ledge. All she did was take a step backward, and we feel so many mixed emotions at that moment. Such artistry by the director and actor!

Archie Alemania's character development was rather straight-forward and he played the character Joaquin very sympathetically. Mae Paner plays the usurer Magda, such a hateful character you will feel her effect even if she was only seen in the first hour. Soliman Cruz plays the prison bully Wakwak, another hateful character seen in the third hour. That scene where he was singing "O Holy Night" was so insidiously sinister. Angelina Kanapi gives another strange off-beat portrayal as Fabian's cloying sister Hoda.

This film is not for everyone. Not everyone will have the patience for it. Not everyone will have the time for it. However, for those who do invest their time with this, you will experience the artistic vision upon which Lav Diaz has built his name. The innovative camera angles make mundane household items and rustic scenes look and feel different.

The Urian-winning script of Rody Vera may have been inspired by Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment", but this film was unmistakably Filipino in character. We complain that there is no character development in mainstream film. There is no shortage of that here. We will get to see how the events shaped Fabian, Joaquin and Eliza as they were caught in their consequences.

This rare commercial run could be your best chance to watch a Lav Diaz film and immerse yourself in the work of a director whose name is already being lined up with the esteemed National Artists for film Brocka and Bernal. 9/10

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."