Norte, The End of History (Lav Diaz, Philippines, 2013) – Gene Siskel Film Center / Rating: 9.7
Chicago movie buffs should make it a point to see Lav Diaz’s monumental Norte, the End of History, which will have its local premiere this Saturday, September 6, as part of the Gene Siskel Film Center’s ambitious Filipino Cinema series (and then screen only once more, on Saturday, September 27). This 4-hour-plus transposition of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment to the contemporary Philippines is easily one of the most important film events of the year. Diaz, a profoundly modern filmmaker, reminds us why Dostoevsky’s 19th-century novel will always be sadly relevant — because pretentious and confused young men will always come up with half-baked philosophical theories to justify their supposed moral superiority. Diaz’s real masterstroke, however, is to essentially split Dostoevsky’s protagonist into three separate characters: Fabian (Sid Lucero) is the chief Raskolnikov figure, a law-school dropout who commits the horrific and senseless double murder of a loan shark and her daughter; Joaquin (Archie Alemania), a family man and laborer, is falsely accused of the crime and sentenced to a lengthy prison term; Eliza (Angeli Bayani), Joaquin’s wife, must consequently roam the countryside and look for odds jobs in order to provide for her and Joaquin’s young children. By having Dostoevsky’s themes of crime, punishment and redemption correspond to three characters instead of one, Diaz retains the Russian author’s trademark first-person psychological intensity while also offering a panoramic view of society that more closely resembles that of Count Tolstoy. Please don’t let the extensive running time scare you: like Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day, another favorite work of art that Norte resembles, not a minute of screen time here is wasted.
The complete schedule for the Filipino Cinema: New Directions/New Auteurs series can be found here.
Manakamana (Stephanie Spray/Pacho Velez, USA/Nepal, 2013) – On Demand / Rating: 8.1
Let’s face it: the vast majority of what pass for feature documentaries these days are merely works of video journalism. In these “talking heads”-studded extravaganzas, which are increasingly clogging up precious space in America’s arthouse theaters, content is everything. The best that can be said about their cinematography and sound design is that they are “functional.” I happen to like some such movies but I also know damn well that I am likely to get the same thing out of watching them on an iPhone that I will get out of watching them on a 40-foot cinema screen. That’s why it brings me great pleasure to say that I recently caught up to Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s Manakamana, a non-fiction film full of remarkable sights and sounds that proves again, if further proof is needed, that Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab is almost single-handedly rescuing the documentary form by producing non-fiction films of real aesthetic value. As in the SEL’s mesmerizing 2012 fishing-boat doc cum horror movie Leviathan, the focus here is more experiential (and experimental) than informational. The premise is that the camera stays inside of a 5×5-foot cable car as it makes 11 journeys, carrying visitors to and from the sacred “Manakamana temple,” through the remote Himalayan mountains in Nepal. Each of the 11 journeys was captured in a single 10-minute take on 16mm film and all of the edits between shots have been cleverly disguised by cover of darkness (a la Hitchcock’s Rope). The result is that viewers get to casually hang out with a wide swath of humanity — cell-phone-wielding teenagers, chatty elderly women, jamming musicians, sacrificial goats and even a couple of American tourists — and are asked to simply observe them against the background of an ever-changing jungle landscape. A fascinating, immersive experience.
Manakamana is now available for rental or purchase on various digital platforms, including iTunes.