Film Review: ‘Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts’

Indonesian director Mouly Surya pioneers a new genre — call it the Satay Western — with this female-driven journey of vengeance and justice.

Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts
Courtesy of EJ

At the age of 36, Indonesian director-writer Mouly Surya has made the first Satay Western, and a flamingly feminist one at that. Following a widow on an empowering course to seek justice for robbery and rape, “Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts” is a revenge fantasy rooted in Indonesia’s gender conditions, complex regional culture and the stark beauty of its landscapes. At once tightly controlled and simmering with righteous fury, it’s gorgeously lensed, atmospherically scored and moves inexorably toward a gratifying payoff. A co-production between Indonesia, France, Malaysia and Thailand, this savvy blend of genre and art-house sensibilities will kill it at festivals, but needs adventurous distributors to put it into theatres where it can be viewed in its widescreen beauty.

Surya’s debut “Fiksi” and sophomore feature “What They Don’t Talk About When They Talk About Love” have centered on outlier female characters (a lonely stalker and blind teenagers) and their sexuality without overtly pushing any ideological agendas. Incidentally, while her earlier protagonists all bleed as a rite of passage, the titular Marlina is older and spills the blood of others, symbolizing a new stage of maturity and independence. By referencing the Western from a female perspective, she subverts this most masculine of genres, while offering Indonesian cinema an alternative to the macho action of fanboy hits like “The Raid.”

Garin Nugroho, Indonesia’s most revered director is credited with the original idea, after a visit to Sumba Island, an arid terrain that steadfastly holds on to its unique traditions, including strong patriarchal values. Expanding his treatment into a full screen play,  Surya and co-writer Rama Adi achieves a certain classical simplicity with four sharply divided acts — “Robbery,” “The Journey,” “The Confession” and “The Birth” — that explore characters’ inner changes and growing sense of purpose.

Updating the classic Western tradition, Markus (Egi Fedly) rolls into the modest homestead of newly widowed Marlina (Marsha Timothy) on his motorbike. He invites himself into her home, announcing that his gang of bandits will seize her money, her livestock, and “if we have time, we’ll sleep with you.” Sporting long sticky hair and the face of a rocker who’s been stoned since the ’60s, he nonetheless thinks what they’re about to mete out will make her “the luckiest woman in the world.”

As if in bitter parody of rural customs of hospitality, he demands to be served betel nut and coffee like an honoured guest, and orders chicken soup to be made, ready for the other six men when they arrive. The warped rituals of civility they enact hint at an iron-clad patriarchy that prescribes and controls female conduct, as when he tells Marlina, “Widows should not be so feisty” or “Women love to play the victim.”

All this is done in front of her husband’s mummified body, which crouches in the corner of their thatched living room. His macabre presence reveals how her status has changed now that there’s no man to “protect” her.

Surya builds nail-biting tension as Marlina sullenly yields to their demands, but let’s just say she doesn’t take it lying down. First she laces their soup with some special seasoning, then in a (literal) climax that rivals any of Tarantino’s high concept violence, she beheads Markus with a machete in one swift, satisfying stroke. It’s not easy to sustain momentum after such a high, but subsequent developments continue to intrigue and surprise even as the narrative branches out into new genre and stylistic directions in a crossover between road movie and action.

As advertised, Act II follows a geographic and metaphorical journey. Marlina tries to hitch a ride to go to the police to turn herself in. She runs into her heavily pregnant friend Novi (Dea Panendra) on her way to town to reunite with her husband Umbu. The local men’s deep-seated mistrust and fear of female sexuality are again reflected in Umbu’s superstition that Novi’s delayed delivery is the sign of adultery.

A bubbly chatterbox, Novi hardly balks at the sight of her friend’s weapon or “evidence,” which she carries on a sling, still dripping blood. Equally unfazed is a middle-aged lady on her way to her nephew’s wedding, with a dowry of horses that come in handy at a turning point. Their presence creates a lively female space in counterpoint to the aggressive machismo in the previous act.

The geocultural diversity of Indonesia can be gleaned from the parched flat lands that unfurl for miles on Sumba, a sight one seldom associates with a country known for tropical rainforests. Echoing the animism practiced by the majority of Sumba islanders, the headless Markus appears sporadically, surreally strumming a string instrument. Whether it’s a hallucination betraying Marlina’s guilty conscience is left ambiguous, but she firmly rejects Novi’s advice to go to church and confess.

Act III sees Marlina finally making it to the police station, despite trouble on the way caused by Franz (Yoga Pratama) and Ian (Anggun Priambodo), two survivors from Markus’ gang. However, as Novi predicted, the police don’t see eye-to-eye with her, and their ridiculous procedures again reinforce typical attitudes toward victims of sexual discrimination and violence. A small diversion sees her befriend a young girl whose name triggers another sad episode in her past, while accentuating the tremendous resilience needed for women to survive.

The extremities of birth and death converge in the last act, taking personal motifs of vendetta to a primal level to evoke life’s natural cycle. By this time, Novi has also undergone her own journey of inner awakening so both female protagonists have audiences rooting for them so wholeheartedly that they literally rocked the house with cheering and clapping during the premiere at Cannes’ Director’s Fortnight.

Timothy carries the film majestically, through in a clenched performance that achieves catharsis without demonstrative expression. Kudos also to the male cast, especially Fedly and Pratama for conveying their arrogance and cruelty under a smarmy veneer.

Of the top-notch production, Zeke Khaseli and Ydhi Arfani deserve special mention for their exceptional score, which grasps the spirit of Morricone then reinvents it with original Indonesian elements, such as the soulful folksongs in Sumba dialect that the bandits sing or their use of local instruments. Yunu Pasolang’s lensing provides striking contrasts between dark, confined interiors and the piercingly bright and airy outdoors.

Film Review: ‘Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts’

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Director’s Fortnight), May 24, 2017. Running time: 95 MIN. (Original title: “Marlina Si Pembunuh Dalam Empat Babak”)

  • Production: (Indonesia-France-Malaysia-Thailand) A Cinesurya, Kaninga Pictures, Shasha & Co. Prod., Astro Shaw, HOOQ Originals, Purin Pictures production. (International sales: Asian Shadows, Beijing, Paris.). Producer: Rama Adi, Fauzan Zidni. Executive producers: Willawati, Najwa Abu Bakar, Peter Bithos, Rama Adi. Co-producer: Isabelle Glachant.
  • Crew: Director: Mouly Surya. Screenplay: Surya, Rama Adi based on a story by Garin Nugroho. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): Yunus Pasolang. Editor: Kelvin Nugroho. Music: Zeke Khaseli, Yudhi Arfani.
  • With: Marsha Timothy, Dea Panendra, Egi Fedly, Yoga Pratama, Rita Matu Mona, Vayu Unru, Anggun Priambodo, Safira Ahmad.