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Lav Diaz is often called a favourite of the international festival circus. And when you check e.g. Rottemtomatoes on the films he made, there are plenty, but only this, the most recent, has enough critical opinion to award it a rating. Are these films never shown outside the festivals? Which ones should I see after this fascinating, flawed and beautiful monster of a film that is “Norte”?

“Norte” violently rejects the urge to cut scenes short, to take away any of the natural time of a moment. There are long discussions rather ludicrous pseudo-intellectuals who are a bit too old to play around with teenage logic of revolution and justice, with primitive versions of Raskolnikhovian dialogues – you could call “bullshit bingo” after three minutes, but the scene goes on and on in all its tediousness. Why? Because it is important to know how these guys behave, what kind of people they are. One of them will become important, at least in the way people can become important to other people when they cross their paths in unexpected fashions.

But in most cases it is not even tedious, in most cases these long shots are terribly rewarding, such as in a prison scene where one of the inmates just sits with a guitar and is allowed to have the time he needs for his melancholic song. The camera is tiptoeing in order not to disrupt the peaceful moment. While the script may be the weakness of “Norte”, the is the strength of a film that has not so much going in terms of plot, story or dialogue. I read somewhere that the camera hardly moves, but that is wrong, the camera almost never does not move, but it does it very slowly and carefully, such as not to disturb the scene it is filming. It manages to catch beautiful images of some kids playing on the front porch of the poor dwelling they live in, and these scenes could not last long enough. Or of the women who do the laundry for the rich people. Of the small family’s peaceful stroll along a dirty canal to a place we do not know while we are watching, and it could be a place of desolation or a place of joy, they have just visited their husband / father in prison and now they are just walking through the sun, the camera strolling with them at a wide angle, no need to disrupt the intimacy of the family with a close-up.

We follow some parallel lives: that law student with his silly philosophy about justice, and the family that just tries to recover from their father’s leg disease. That goes wrong, because when the two strands intertwine, as a result the father  ends up in prison. While this is a drama, the film never creates a drama out of it. It keeps its calm, a laid-back fatalistic attitude about life being something that happens to people. Those who think they take control over life, fix its deficiencies and twist fate… they face very severe consequences, as that law student will experience. He looks into the abyss, and the abyss looks back into him, and he is on a downward spiral that will leave him wrecked in so many ways. His victims do not necessarily fare better, but at least they can go down with their heads held up.

If there is a star in this movie, a moral and emotional centre, it is Eliza, played by Angeli Bayani. She is the wife of the man who goes to prison, she is the mother of the two children she now needs to raise on her own, supported by her cousin, I think, by selling vegetables, taking on cleaning jobs, abandoning all hopes of a small restaurant that she had nourished before her husband fell ill. It may very well be that I have never ever seen anybody play a role so credible, so truthful, so heartbreakingly undramatic despite all the unfolding drama. I obviously have never heard of the actress, but watching this I was absolutely stunned by her performance, which I can only explain by her not being a “proper” actress (which seems not true, judging from the list of films she played in already) or by the director creating some form of setting that allows her to behave as if she was part of a documentary rather than a scripted drama. The whole film manages to catch this “ordinariness”, it seems it is a bit ashamed when people get too agitated, when they get all shouty and violent and murderish … in those moments the camera discreetly looks the other way, or stays in front of the door when the action happens inside, or allows a bush to stand in the way between camera and atrocity.

Norte does not shy away from cruelty, the director just decided that you do not need an image of violence to understand the degree of cruelty. Bad things happen, plenty of them. It is a sad world. And a beautiful one.

New York Times Review by A.O. Scott

Worth reading a bit more about it at Wikipedia (Spoilers)

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