An Indonesian Work of Feminist Rage and Vivid Originality
DIRECTED BY MOULY SURYA/INDONESIAN/2018 (U.S. Theatrical Release)
DVD STREET DATE: NOVEMBER 6, 2018/ICARUS FILMS
One night, as the full moon shines brighter and larger than it has in any other movie, a woman cooks supper for an unwanted guest. The vibe in her shack-like homestead is reflected in the Ozu-like framing in which it’s presented, though the low, square tranquility is disrupted with slow-burning threat.
Prior to her current task, her guest- a greying man of intense but quiet temperament (Egy Fedly), has informed her that soon, six of his accomplices will arrive to rob her of all her livestock, her money, and then take turns raping her. With that news settling in, she takes his dinner order, and then actually gets to work on that.
Meet Marlina- soon to be Marlina The Murderer. But is it murder if it’s self defense…? Anyhow, in the moment, it scarcely matters. It’s not long before she’s got a mess of dead men on her hands. So, Marlina does what any resourceful modern day Indonesian farm widow would do- she bundles up the severed head left over from the incident, and sets off for the city police station. Surely, they can help her, no?
No indeed. Somewhere between laughably inept and outright wrong, lies the pointless police consultation. Lugging a cut-off head all over town is no straightforward matter, after all. Though, as matter-of-fact as Marlina is about it, perhaps in this village, it actually is…? “Where are you going with that head?”, a fellow passenger asks. It turns out that her destination is far from defined. The head, though, is her prisoner.
The headless ghost haunts her, plucking away on his stringed musical instrument. Every now and then, we are privy to her conscience, her point of view, her guilt. She denies wrongdoing (understandably) even when she’s advised to go to directly to church and confess her sins. She’s called a murderer by more than just the title of this film- a calculated misnomer, even as the cheeky bit about it being “in Four Acts” is true.
Marsha Timothy as Marlina is an immediately striking presence. There’s never any doubt in her ability to command the screen, nor her individual wherewithal. Playing a character in a land where feminism is literally a foreign concept, she succeeds at being both an enigmatic presence and a fragile human of the earth. Marlina’s actions are either confounding or revolutionary, depending on one’s cultural background and/or learned point of view. But crucially, no man is any good in this world. Their idea of luck is her reality of misery. She says as much.
Death has a way of piling up around Marlina, even before the rapist/thieves arrive. Her husband is already dead, his mummy eerily sitting crosslegged on the floor of the living room. Yet, for a movie so full of death, it’s awfully preoccupied with child birth. One could stereotypically assume that this is the influence Marlina’s female filmmaker, the talented Mouly Surya. As contemporary revenge-Westerns made by male directors do tend to avoid the level of specifics and discourse about birth that is presented here. The yin and yang of precious new life and the inevitability of death (even brutal, premature death) is of key creative interest here. Another character, a pregnant young woman in a lousy marriage named Novi (Dea Penendra) becomes Marlina’s acquaintance, even taking center stage momentarily.
As beautifully rendered as the sparse, rural desert hills of Indonesia are in this film, widescreen scope and saturated just to the edge of pop art, it’s a shame that Marlina the Murderer is not being made available on Blu-ray. This is a very tactile, very colorful film, both carefully intentional attributes lending themselves to its verility. It’s an aesthetic that’s out of step with the spaghetti Western qualities that one may assume that one is in for, based upon the film’s first minutes.
Opening this film with an overriding Ennio Morricone musical emulation, while cool, is the film’s biggest misstep. The repetitive flute and trumpet theme does a better job of evoking incidental music from A Fistful of Dollars or even the opening of The Hateful Eight than establishing this as the unique film that it truly is. Fortunately, the Morricone stylizing is dropped fairly early on, and other, far more original music drives the rest of the film.
The DVD from Icarus Films offers a brief video interview with the film’s composer, as well as the sound designers, all of whom collaborated effectively to realize this darkly tweaked vision. Director Mouly Surya is also interviewed, discussing how she came to helming this, a film that she did not initially dream up. Finally, there’s also a six minute chat with the cinematographer, though he doesn’t seem to know what to say about his work. It’s okay, the look of Marlina the Murderer speaks for him.
This movie, layered and memorable, played the Directors Fortnight portion of the 2017 Cannes Film Festival before making the festival circuit that year and into 2018. Though its obscurity is unfortunate, meaning that Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts won’t appear on very many year-end Best Films lists, it is nevertheless deserving of more as one of the outstanding cinema accomplishments of the previous several years.