History never ends
Yesterday, finally, I was able to catch ‘Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan’ (Norte, the End of History) at the Trinoma Mall cinema. Having read much about the film’s plot and pacing, I braced myself for the experience by having lunch before the movie (which turned out to be so disappointing), getting snacks that I planned to eat for each hour of the 4-hour film, and peeing twice before the screening started.
Much of the plot happens within the first 90 minutes of the film. The different lives of the two male protagonists are laid out, intersect briefly, and the consequences play out–spanning the length of the film. Watching the film reminded me of the writer Edmund White. He recalled an interview, where the interviewer asked about the way he told stories, specifically his tendency to skip over the details of events that seemed important to the plot and in contrast, provide so much details on things that seemed inconsequential. If I remember correctly, Mr. White answered that question rather obliquely, which on hindsight he regretted while acknowledging this storytelling quirk of his.
In a typical movie, I would’ve seen more of the first two murders. There would also have been scenes relating to the trial–the inept lawyer, police torture, the trial itself, and the conviction that would make for riveting melodrama. The sense of grinding poverty would have shown children getting sick without hope of treatment and hospitalization, and so on. I think most of us know the drill.
Instead of that, we have to rely on sounds because much of the murders done by Fabian (Sid Lucero) were off-screen. Joaquin’s (Archie Alemania) investigation and trial weren’t shown. When his wife Eliza (Angeli Bayani) visits him in the provincial jail, we see him with bruised but the circumstances of such bruising wasn’t even mentioned. Instead of poverty porn, we see Joaquin and Eliza’s children grow up loved despite the hardships that their mother endures to feed them and keep them in school.
We see long, almost static shots of the beauty of nature but one can’t help but feel a sense of doom for the people that inhabited such beautiful surroundings. It certainly helped that the performance of the actors were all consistently remarkable, especially Archie Alemania–whose performance here was largely ignored by award-giving bodies. It wasn’t a bravado performance compared to Sid Lucero’s but his quiet moments of grieving were very powerful. My only quibble with his performance was a few moments were his limp was inconsistent. But that’s just me nit-picking.
Speaking of quiet moments, Angeli Bayani’s luminous presence completely riveted me to the screen, unaware of the passing of the hours, and making me wish there was more when the credits rolled. There are angles when she struck me as a dusky version of Ruffa Mae Quinto but as her character’s journey unfolded, I was rooting for her, wishing her character doesn’t get mired in the trappings of melodrama previously mentioned. She wrenched my heart without any breakdown scene. Her two most memorable scenes for me where the one where the stupid lawyer was explaining the appeals process in English and towards the end of this scene she said “Bakit hindi ninyo sinabi sa amin yan?” To which the lawyer responded arrogantly. Her pain, restrained but gut-wrenching, was palpable. The other was when they saw Joaquin before he was transferred to the national penitentiary in Muntinlipa. Long after the van carrying Joaquin left, the camera lingers on her as she stares at the moving vehicle. Her eyes evoked such desperation and defiant resolve that I was crying before she silently said tears.
And don’t get me started on that almost-suicide scene with Eliza and her children. I’ve heard about the scene so when I saw it starting I thought, “This is it.” But actually watching it play out didn’t diminish its power. I was tense, and relieved she didn’t go through with it.
Much has been said of Sid Lucero’s performance so I won’t rave about it anymore. He was really intense all throughout: from being the young angry man with philosophical pretensions to the man consumed by guilt from within, he was never subtle about it. I think it was appropriate for his character. Getting a glimpse of the roots of his pathology made me understand somewhat his views but he sure didn’t get any sympathy from the audience.
When the credits started rolling, I really felt like asking for more. Thinking about it now, I think it’s largely because yesterday, while in the theater, I was looking for some kind of redemption or even catharsis, but the movie offered none. This morning, before writing this, I realized that it was never the intent of the film. I kept on expecting Fabian to just kill himself but he’s much of a coward to pull it off, even at the risk of living the rest of his life as a tormented man. Eliza’s death was utterly senseless but isn’t real life sometimes is? Only Joaquin, who remained consistently good in spite of what life has thrown at him, seemed puzzling but I think this is just my cynicism casting doubts on his character.
The film’s sweep of our country’s political, social, and intellectual realities, ideals, and could-have-beens were grand and visually appealing, but the intimate details commanded my attention and empathy at every turn. Even if it seemed expansive, the film actually presented a condensed piece of history. Just a bit, because real histories never really end.
The theater was 2/3 full and because it was a Tuesday, about half of the audience were seniors. I could tell they were seniors by the way they walked on their numerous toilet breaks. I held off peeing for the duration of the film by taking slow sips from the bottled water I bought with my snacks. There was applause as the credits rolled, from all age groups, I noted.
As for me, I left the theater with a heavy heart and a lot on my mind. I can’t wait to see “Mula sa Kung Ano Ang Noon” (From What is Before), director Lav Diaz’s 5 1/2-hour opus on the last days before the declaration of Martial Law in 1972.