By Harris Dang
Nowadays, if one were to think of the more established films that come from Indonesia, the most likely response would be to think of the more genre-focused projects like “The Raid” (2011 – 2014) films, films by the Mo Brothers like “Headshot” (2016), “The Night Comes For Us” (2018); and films by Joko Anwar like “The Forbidden Door” (2009) and “Satan’s Slaves” (2017). But if one were to tell this reviewer that one of the most successful Indonesian films to date would be a Western that involved the exploitation trope of rape-revenge, and it directed by an acclaimed female director, he wouldn’t have believed you.
And yet, “Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts” (2017), the rape-revenge dramatic Western by director Mouly Surya, not only managed to meet my expectations, but surpassed them in ways that this reviewer would have never imagined. Ever since it premiered in the Cannes Film Festival in 2017, it has been making waves around the world at many film festivals like Sitges, The AFIs and most recently, sweeping 10 award wins at the Citra Awards in its native country.
Funnily enough, this is one of two films that in the rape-revenge genre, alongside French director Coralie Fargeat‘s aptly titled “Revenge” (2018), that were released in 2018. While “Revenge” is told with a visceral and vibrantly expressionist approach, “Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts” is told in an understated, almost fabled-like approach that lends beauty, nuance, compassion and moments of surrealism; all of which gives the film emotional power beyond the exploitation and genre trappings.
“Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts” is a film that is more interested in the human condition, not only through the eyes of women, but through the eyes of society in Indonesia. But it is done in away that informs everything about the characters, whether it is their actions, their way of life and especially their coping mechanisms in how corrupt and apathetic their society is — shown in a negative light in its portrayal of the police force. In the case of the two female leads, Marlina is shown as a woman with a quiet resolve; one who has the initiative before the major event happens and it shows that the world she lives in has worn her down and made her the woman she is today; whereas for Marlina’s long-time friend Novi, she is a woman who chooses to make the most out of the cards she has been dealt with.
What also informs the entire film is the theme of motherhood. Whether it is about Marlina and her grief over the loss of her son; the heavily pregnant Novi who basically has to deal with her pregnancy with very little help from her deadbeat jealous husband Umbu or even the bandits (including Franz and Markus, played very well by Yoga Pratama and Egy Fedly respectively) who brag about their meals not tasting as good as the meals their mothers had made; it lends a much-needed element of humanity to the characters, making them seem more than just caricatures or cardboard cutouts.
Surya also subverts genre expectations in a way that it adds a sense of unpredictability and yet, it is all grounded in a way that it is quite relatable. Instead of absolute rage that characters are expected to expend toward antagonists, they show compassion that not only seems realistic but also lends a sense of unease to the audience and even the antagonists. In fact, almost every action that the female characters enact that is within their own autonomy (and outside their designated roles), it is met with an element of apprehension of every male character in the film, and it is conveyed with a perfect balance of dark humour and melancholy.
“Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts” is a film that is more interested in the human condition, not only through the eyes of women, but through the eyes of society in Indonesia.
That is not to say that audiences won’t get their genre fix in the bouts of violence in the film. They are certainly swift, brutal, gory and thankfully cathartic due to how well-developed and sympathetic the characters are. It also helps that Surya never resorts to blatant shock value for the sake of shock; nor does it revel in the violence itself, but the aftermath of it. That is especially true thanks to the surreal visuals that Surya conjures, especially with shots of headless corpses through the veil of a mirage.
The cinematography of Yunus Pasolang, Surya’s regular collaborator, is the type of cinematography that deserves to be seen on the big screen. With the shots of the wide vistas and claustrophobic hallways; vibrant and immersive compositions that make the audience feel the heat and operatic staging of the small sets that give the chance for its actors to show their non-verbal acting chops, it lends a sense of intimacy that makes it easier for the audience to feel what the characters are going through. But don’t let that discount the musical score by musicians Zeke Khaseli and Yudhi Arfani (also regular collaborators of Surya); as they both provide a fun, catchy and emotionally stirring score that establishes individual character themes and reinforces familiar scores of Westerns, but without any self-awareness or irony.
Speaking of lack of self-awareness or irony, the performances from the female leads, Marsha Timothy and Dea Panendra, are absolutely fantastic. Timothy, who is best known to Westerners for her small role in the martial arts crime epic “The Raid 2” (2014), gives a compellingly understated performance that never comes across as a cinematic vengeful stereotype, nor does she come across as emotionally impenetrable. She manages to convey the many seething and conflicting emotions without resorting to theatricality or histrionics. Notable scenes that convey Timothy’s talent include the opening scene where the major event takes place as well as a scene where she bonds with a village girl while she intermittently recounts about her deceased child.
“Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts” is a brilliant female-driven arthouse/grindhouse rape-revenge Western…It is truly a masterpiece.”
As for Panendra, her character first starts off as comic relief, which almost sounds like it was more of an obligation in the genre of an action film, rather than an actual three-dimensional character. As the comic relief portion of her character of Novi, Panendra does a brilliant job in conveying the acerbic, laid-back and proactive sides; so much so that Novi comes across as a real person. But it is within the third act where Novi becomes a more prominent figure that Panendra becomes an equal to Timothy in terms of acting chops as she transcends her designated role of comic relief and bystander to a more proactive role, even when in labor.
Overall, “Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts” is a brilliant female-driven arthouse/grindhouse rape-revenge Western that manages to endear, repulse, emotionally stir, mesmerize and propel in the best of ways thanks to its confident direction, wonderfully realized characters, the fantastic lead performances, the vibrantly immersive cinematography, the fun musical score and its implementation of style and substance with its melding of social commentary, characterizations and production values. It is truly a masterpiece.
What is both serendipitous and sad is how the film wasn’t released in the United States until June 2018. And between the time of the Cannes premiere and its US release, the movements of #MeToo and #TimesUp happened, giving the film an even more powerful, yet unintentionally timely thematic punch.