Having been shot in color and on media that doesn't look like a 30-year-old VHS camcorder, telling something that resembles a story pretty much no matter how you look at it, and gliding in at a whimsical four hours and ten minutes, Norte, the End of History certainly earns its reputation as director Lav Diaz's easiest movie.* This means it's also probably in the top 300 easiest films released commercially in the United States in 2014. It's downright scrutable in fact, it's basically just a Filipino riff on Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, and who doesn't like a good literary adaptation?

The Dostoevsky angle is useful primarily in that it lets a viewer get a handle on a project that's other so broad and ambitious that it would be hard to know where the hell to start with it. But it's also reductive in the extreme to try and use that as a shortcut to "solve" a movie that's as minutely obsessed with class distinctions in the Philippines in the 21st Century, the political history of that country's radical intelligentsia, the impact of modern communications technology, and the representational capacity of cinema, as it is with the moral questions that could have consumed a 19th Century Russian novelist. Although those questions matter, too. The fact of the matter is, Norte is a film of wild ambitions, considering as many topics with as much complexity as it dares to. And with that much running time to play with, it gets to dare a lot.

The content seems simple enough: Fabian (Sid Lucero) is a law student, celebrated by his social circle as the most sophisticated thinker among them, and when we meet him, he's holding court on moral and legal theory. Something he apparently does quite a lot of, getting himself good and worked up about the depravity littered throughout the history of the Philippines, declaring that those who deserve to be punished have not been and that social justice shall never be achieved, and the sort of passionate fiery declarations typical of smart students. It so happens that he's borrowed money from the local loan shark, Magda (Mae Paner), and she's starting to get antsy about him paying her back. Also starting to feel Magda's angry pinch is the extremely poor Joaquin (Archie Alemania), trying to get a business off the ground to provide for his wife Eliza (Angeli Bayani) and their children. The desperate Joaquin is a bit more mercurial in his frustrations with Magda, leading to an angry, loud, public shouting match. But he simmers down. The outwardly calm Fabian, however, ends up exploding with rage and murdering Magda. And with perfect dramatic inevitability, Joaquin is sent to prison for the crime. And thus does the bulk of the movie follow the three strands thus set up: Eliza's exhausting attempts to survive by any possible means, Joaquin's eye-opening experiences in the Filipino prison system, and Fabian's descent into madness as he finds himself a prime symptom of the very arbitrary amorality and failure of accountability that he has spent his academic career decrying.

Befitting an (uncredited) adaptation of 19th Century social issues literature, Norte is greatly serious about explicating its themes under the assumption that the audience is smart and willing to think about the state of society, and its refusal to make good on its promises (the second half of the title is a fairly obvious, and entirely sardonic, reference to the "end of history" musings in the West when Russian Communism finally collapsed, and which the 21st Century has thoroughly shown to be pie-eyed optimism of the hollowest sort). But Diaz and his superb team don't rest on the script (which the director co-wrote with Rody Vera) to do all the intellectual heavy lifting; and given the enormous length of the film, that's certainly for the best. An unrelentingly idea-driven Norte would be an enormous slog, and even granting the more generous standards offered to this kind of long-take, wide-shot cinema, the film proves to be impressively full of energy and kineticism. It's brilliantly shot: cinematographer Larry Manda and Diaz manipulate their images on two axes, wide and deep, to explore the characters and the places containing them. It's impressive enough that the anamorphic widescreen is used so smartly, combining groups of people, and isolating individuals; but where Norte shines is in its exceptional use of deep focus - or, as needed, the absence of it. The ingenuity of moments like the murder of Magda, boldly combining off-screen space with careful management of where characters and shapes reside relative to the camera, is one of the best individual sequence of the year, but impressive shadowbox-like staging is very much the norm, rather than the exception.

The film's color palette is quite fantastic, as well; given Diaz's success with black-and white films, it's a little surprising, maybe, that the contrasts of blue water, pale sky, brown and green land, and the sickly wash of the prison interiors, would be so confidently employed in directing the viewer's emotions and engagement within scenes. And, too, for a director so accustomed to static shots - and Norte is made up largely of static shots - the handful of punctuation marks of camera movement are brilliant as well (between the deep staging and the cunning about what camera movement means when it's only sparingly employed, Norte feels something like an heir to Ozu Yasujiro, though for different ends).

The formalism in the film is very strictly used as a function of the storytelling and philosophy, mind you. This is very much a movie about Grand Ideas, and the images primarily serve to situate us relative to the characters, their words, and their actions, such that we either feel involved or distant in individual moments of thought or revelation (the way that the imprisoned Joaquin is framed, and Alemania's performance, suggest at times a modernist update of a medieval martyr painting into cinematic form). It's a complex and elaborate and extremely precise piece of filmmaking, that is to say, but one that's intuitively watchable and philosophically accessible far more than its on-paper content would suggest. I'm not a damn fool, and I won't go so far as to suggest that Norte is "fun", but four hours of academic moralising could be a hell of a lot more opaque than this crafty, organic film presents them as being, and the result is one of the year's best films, but better still, one of its smartest.