'Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts' ('Marlina si Pembunuh dalam Empat Babak'): Film Review | Cannes 2017

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Kicks ass.

The third film from Indonesian director Mouly Surya ('What They Don't Talk About When They Talk About Love') is a stark genre feature with a strong female protagonist.

It in no way diminishes the accomplishment of Indonesian distaff director Mouly Surya to suggest that her third feature, Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts (Marlina si Pembunuh dalam Empat Babak), does what it says on the can. This is an austere yet stylish revenge romp as well as a starkly told tale of a determined and strong female character who is mad as hell and is not going to take it anymore. A perfect fit for the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes, which showcases auteur offerings with a genre twist or slightly more mainstream edge, this third film from Sundance and Cinefondation alumnus Surya (What They Don’t Talk about When They Talk about Love) should see interest from art house distributors looking for more accessible fare.

The entire tale unfolds on the uncharacteristically dry island of Sumba, in eastern Indonesia, some 600 miles north of Australia. Not long after Marlina (veteran actress Marsha Timothy) has lost her husband, their isolated home in the arid countryside is invaded by a group of rowdy men led by the creepy and dictatorial Markus (Egi Fedly). They start loading up her cattle and plan to rape her, using the fact that she hasn’t paid off a previous funeral yet as an excuse for their appalling behavior.

(The following paragraph contains spoilers for the film’s first 25 minutes.) The thugs' smug arrogance is as clear as Marlina’s distress and mounting anger. The men are evidently used to bossing women around and treating them like slaves, even commanding the widow to make them dinner. After some hesitation, she obliges Markus’ gang by serving them a strong chicken soup but with a secret, lethal ingredient for that extra kick. The result is shown in a particularly striking wide shot of Marlina's living room, as the men keel over one by one in the background while a dead-calm Marlina faces the camera in the center of the image. But their oblivious leader is at this point still alive and in the bedroom, waiting for Marlina to come to him so he can have his way with her. Without saying a word, she mounts him, cowgirl style, and then uses a machete to sever the head from the criminal’s body. Quick and clean. The act closes with another mesmerizing image, as Marlina sits down, exhausted and empty, in her living room, next to the remains of her husband, who’s been sitting in a squatted position in a semi-dark corner the entire time. The couple’s entire backstory is suggested through one simple gesture, when Marlina lays her head on his cold shoulder.

The director’s regular cinematographer, Yunus Pasolang, works wonders in the modest home’s small and dark interiors, using a single source of slanting light to pierce the darkness, like the dramatic chiaroscuro in Caravaggio’s paintings. Beyond the fact the first act was set indoors and at night, the palette choices also reflect a thematic meaning, as what happens — and what could have further happened — to Marlina in part one is nothing but a display of some of the darkest human behavior imaginable.

This stands in stark contrast to the visuals in the following acts, which are set during the day and outdoors. Because of Sumba’s largely horizontal landscapes, with their arid, yellow and brown grasses, and Zeke Khaseli and Yudhi Arfani’s score, some Western-genre influences creep into the material, though this time, instead of a cowboy, we get a widow who is out for revenge. She’s traveling (spoiler ahead) to a police station where she reports what has happened and she brings a witness: Markus’s head. The latter causes a driver to refuse to take her on board, though this is nothing she can’t settle with her now-loyal companion, the machete.

To keep the proceedings from becoming either too gory or too dramatic, Surya and co-scribe Rama Adi add a sprinkling of light comedy as well. A reference to chicken soup is good for some laughs and since all the positive characters are women, their banter has a unique female slant as they discuss the difficulties of having sex while pregnant. In another clever twist, all this supposedly light talk of pregnancy also allows the director to reveal a bit more about Marlina’s dolorous past and why she has no children herself.

As in Un Certain Regard title Beauty and the Dogs, which was set in Tunisia, a woman in Muslim Indonesia is required to medically prove she has been raped, though, in a darkly absurd twist, at the police station Marlina is told they won’t have the necessary funds to do any tests for at least another month. It is details such as these that anchor what is obviously a revenge fantasy in contemporary Indonesia in a way that’s not only telling and well observed but which adds contemporary resonance to what could have been just genre fodder. No wonder Marlina feels like she needs to take things into her own hands, though her grizzly — if not overly gory —actions aren’t simply glorious and triumphant, as she starts to have visions of Markus’ headless body plucking away at his rebab, clearly a sign her own moral conscience is trying to come to grips with the fact she has turned into the murderer of the title.

Most if not all of the violence happens early on, but the sober and small-scale events that unfold in the following three acts are what make the film both more specifically Indonesian and a more universal tale of girl power and self-determination. At once an enjoyable genre ride and a feminist art house story, Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts might send some heads rolling but has its own head firmly on its shoulders.

Production companies: Cinesurya, Kaninga Pictures, Shasha & Co Production, Astro Shaw, Hooq Originals, Purin Pictures
Cast: Marsha Timothy, Dea Panendra, Egi Fedly, Yoga Pratama, Rita Matu Mona, Yayu Unru, Anggun Priambodo, Ayez Kassar, Safira Ahmad, Indra Birowo, Ozzol Ramdan, Haydar Salishz, Norman R. Akyuwen
Director: Mouly Surya
Screenplay: Mouly Surya, Rama Adi, story by Garin Nugroho
Producers: Willawati, Najwa Abu Bakar, Peter Bithos, Rama Adi
Executive producers: Willawati, Najwa Abu Bakar, Peter Bithos
Director of photography: Yunus Pasolang
Production designer: Frans Paat
Costume designer: Meutia Pudjowarsito
Editor: Kelvin Nugroho
Music: Zeke Khaseli, Yudhi Arfani
Casting: Sapto Soetarjo
Sales: Asian Shadows

In Indonesian
No rating, 93 minutes

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