Dennis Lim

Death Trips

Cannes’ unabashed reliance on its favored sons—and they are inevitably sons—has given the festival the feel of an old boys’ club, tougher than ever to break into. Case in point: Lav Diaz, the elder statesman of the New Philippine cinema and one of the most venerated (if least seen) filmmakers of the past decade, finally made his Cannes debut with Norte, the End of History a dozen years—and many, many hours of screen time—after his shift away from commercial production with Batang West Side (01).

Any discussion of Diaz must begin—and all too often ends—with his cosmic running times: his best-known films run anywhere from five to 11 hours. Many festivalgoers dismiss him as a slow-cinema ascetic, not to mention a scheduling nightmare. But for Diaz, duration is a marker of commitment and an instrument of empathy, a way of inviting viewers into the physical spaces and emotional states of his characters. A breeze by his standards at just over four hours, Norte, which screened in Un Certain Regard, came as a salutary shock to the system, a liberation from the manic overstimulation of Cannes.

Smoothing out many of the rough edges of his previous work, Norte is an ideal entry point for neophytes, following a streamlined, even classical narrative—with a strong debt to Crime and Punishment—where Diaz’s more digressive films have at times reflected the wayward circumstances of their shooting. In the northern province of Luzon, a law-school dropout, given to nihilist philosophizing, commits a horrific crime; a decent, gentle family man takes the fall and receives a life sentence, leaving behind a wife and two kids. Diaz’s deep-focus compositions are in rich, vivid color on this occasion (as opposed to his customary black and white); at times a vertiginous “heli-cam” floats above the action, suggesting by turns the fitful perspective of a dreamer and the troubled omniscience of an all-seeing eye.

As with kindred epics like A Brighter Summer Day and City of Sadness, the broad canvas accommodates both the irreducibility of individual experience and the sweep of time and space. In a Diaz film the wounds and defeats of Filipino history always loom large. Fabian (a terrific Sid Lucero), the would-be rebel turned tormented killer, may well be this innately political filmmaker’s most indelible creation: a haunting embodiment of the dead ends of ideology.

If Cannes seems increasingly averse to risk—a film like Norte being the clear exception to the rule—one exacerbating factor may be the festival-wide tilt toward genre. Laudable in theory, the shift has in practice meant sore-thumb Competition entries by Takashi Miike and Nicolas Winding Refn and the puzzling overhaul of the Directors’ Fortnight section, once an incubator for emerging radical voices, now more of a midnight-movie clearinghouse.