Film Reviews

Slow Cinema and Norte, the End of History


To most audiences, to describe a film as ‘slow’ is to give it a negative value judgement. In answer to the question ‘why didn’t you like the film?’ one often hears the response ‘oh because it was so slow’, especially in relation to non-mainstream and art cinema. The word ‘slow’ regularly works as a euphemism for ‘boring’. While there is nothing wrong with finding a film boring – last night for example, I found myself writhing in my seat wondering if a certain four hour Filipino film would ever end – to offer this as an argument against a film’s value is a failure to think seriously about the film and its worth.

On the other hand, some critics and connoisseurs will shy away from admitting that they found a film boring, aligning being bored with cultural philistinism, believing that such a secret will reveal that they do not have the brains to appreciate highbrow cinema. If boredom is both a response one cannot control and natural in relation to the kind of cinema which consciously denies any shred of entertainment, there should be no shame in admitting this. However, the job of both critic and audience should be to look past the boredom which these films bring to see what else they offer if not entertainment. Through this one prevents an emotional response overwhelming an intellectual response.

In recent years, a genre has emerged within art cinema that critics have termed ‘slow cinema’. Films labelled ‘slow cinema’ are often viewed as difficult, impenetrable, austere and for the select few. Indeed one could suggest it is the classification of ‘slow’ which bolsters the elitism. Here we can propose that critics have created a category which allows them to rejoice in their ability to enjoy what the majority of audiences do not. For the masses, ‘slow’ means boring/worthless, for the critics, ‘slow’ means the supreme works of art. Often this group of films have been referred to as ‘cultural vegetables’, demanding concentration, withholding immediate pleasures but ultimately good for you in some way or another.

However, in my experience, what I find difficult about these films is not the slowness of their pace, their austere minimalism or use of long takes, but their running times which can exist anywhere between four and twelve hours – well at least for slow cinema giants Béla Tarr and Lav Diaz. As I found last night, it was not the slowness of the film, which anyone could handle but the extent of its duration. Without considerable training in duration, this is where I began to struggle, where my patience was tested and I felt challenged.

Although referred to as a genre, films within ‘slow cinema’ seem to be united really through their emphasis on the long take, absence of narrative and ability to draw attention to the passing of time. Additionally, one could say that they all invite contemplation, conceptual and aesthetic, and predominately focus attention on photography and themselves as works of art. ‘Slow cinema’ films also appear to be bestowed with a certain descriptive vocabulary which writers endlessly draw upon, these films are ‘mesmerising’, ‘immersive’, ‘evocative’, ‘contemplative’.

If we imagine a film as entertainment/art spectrum, ‘slow cinema’ films are situated on the furthest reaches away from Hollywood, past Fellini, Bergman and early Godard, in an area close to the type of non-narrative avant-garde and experimental video art available in galleries. They should however not be confused with video art; these films emerge from the films of Antonioni and Tarkovsky and are fundamentally cinematic in construction if not duration.

Which films constitute the genre, if it can be called such, is additionally a contentious matter. It appears that everyone agrees on Béla Tarr, Lav Diaz, Albert Serra and Theo Angelopoulos as belonging to the group, and as the films Lisandro Alonso, Fred Kelemen, James Benning and Ben Rivers were shown at the North East’s Slow Cinema Festival in 2012, we could also place these filmmakers within the category. Whether filmmakers such a Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Andrey Zvyagintsev, Aleksandr Sokurov should be described as ‘slow cinema’ directors, in addition to many other arthouse favourites, is however up for debate.

What must also be considered are the uses of the term ‘slow cinema’: whether it is reductive, appropriate or even worthless as a classification device. While I do not subscribe fully to its ideologies and would argue that the films of those directors listed above may be better off as classified as something else (I can see little relationship between Béla Tarr’s seven hour masterpiece Sátántangó (1994) with Lav Diaz’s latest Norte, the End of History (2013) other than in its use of long takes, its length and interest in photography), I can see that the term has some uses.

As Norte, the End of History, the film I saw last night, could be legitimately described as ‘slow cinema’ but also read as belonging to the crime/prison genres – through its incorporation of murder sequences and scenes set in jail – the film undoubtedly occupies an uncertain position. Whether the viewer should be so confident in allowing the ‘slow cinema’ debate to inform his/her viewing of the film, as I have, should be considered in future viewings.

Norte, the End of History at four hours ten minutes is one of Lav Diaz’s shortest films. While filmographies of his work on the internet suggest that he has made numerous films since Melancholia (2008) – the eight hour critical success that I partially saw at Newcastle’s AV Festival in 2012 whilst sitting next to the director – Melancholia was the last to be distributed in the West.

I only saw the first four hours of that film as I had to leave early to see Tarr’s The Turin Horse (2011) at the Tyneside cinema (probably to the dismay of Lav Diaz sitting next to me). Reports have assured me that Melancholia is a masterpiece as great as Sátántangó, the film which I view as the supreme achievement of the ‘slow cinema’ movement thus far.

Numerous critics have, however, commented that Norte is a step-down from Melancholia in relation to what I guess must be both impenetrability and duration. Sight & Sound’s Adrian Martin has observed that the film ‘was even greeted by some acolytes as a sell-out to commercial (or at least wider) accessibility’. While the inheritance of the skeletal plot of Crime and Punishment has resulted in the film having an observable narrative, Norte is nonetheless difficult and challenging at times, beautiful and mesmerising at others.

The film weaves numerous plots together, observing its three protagonists in sections before leaving them to return months or even years later. Fabian, an ex law student is the equivalent of Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s novel. He has begun to subscribe to aberrant forms of philosophy, spouting arguments in front of friends and teachers which are answered with astonished glances and incredulity at his wayward ideas.

Elsewhere, Joaquin is struggling with a leg injury and is unable to support his wife, Eliza, and his two children. In order to save her family from poverty, Eliza attracts the attention of the local pawnbroker, the greedy and obese Magda, who happily takes all of the family’s belongings in exchange for cash. Out of desperation, Joaquin confronts Magda and ultimately ends up strangling her. Magda’s maid quickly asserts herself and fights off Joaquin.

When Fabian eventually goes on his violent rampage, killing the pawnbroker and her daughter, out of sympathy for Joaquin and Eliza’s unfortunate situation, it is the innocent Joaquin who is arrested and sent to jail. The film then moves to depict Joaquin’s miserable experiences in prison, paralleling this action with Fabian’s partial quest for forgiveness and redemption and Eliza’s struggle to bring up her two children.

As demonstrated above, Norte astonishingly includes a fair amount of plot and action for a ‘slow cinema’ film. Indeed, if the film did not include all the long cyclical conversations, the moments of dead time, the swooping aerial landscape footage and long takes of characters rarely moving etc., then the film could be relatively fast paced. However, these numerous components are what make the film, in the sense of both art and as a new version of Dostoevsky’s novel.

For the majority of Norte, until I found I couldn’t take anymore towards its end, I was highly impressed by the aesthetic achievements and construction of Diaz’s film. Some parts, including a few notable prison sequences and one involving Eliza, her children and a cliff, were highly moving and granted an emotional response rare to other examples of ‘slow cinema’.

Some of Diaz’s shots are truly sublime: tracks sail by characters, slow camera movements in intensify conversations and landscapes are frequently captured in impressive compositions and colours. There were numerous moments where I didn’t want Diaz to cut away, as what I was seeing on the screen was so aesthetically pleasing.

At times, it appeared that he answered my calls, holding shots for the perfect length of time and thus allowing for a substantial amount of contemplation. As if subscribing directly to that old Bazinian ideal, Diaz enables the audience to focus their eyes on numerous points of the frame, seeing with detail elements which faster films would prohibit. These are the reasons why I believe Diaz’s film to be truly successful. On the other hand, I felt challenged and, at times, bored by Norte. While the film may not have been completely enjoyable for me at this point in my life, it is one which will work to enrich future film experiences, to extend attention spans and to help the interested viewer grasp the success of the greatest works of cinematic art.

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