Review: BW Purba Negara’s debut feature Ziarah could’ve been made into a faux-documentary about love and reconciliation, tailing fictitious Mbah Sri (Ponco Sutiyem), a 95-year-old widow in stint to find her late husband’s tomb. However, it after all is presented as a pure fiction, juxtaposing two stories at once, while retaining the cinéma vérité style and keeping it as grounded as possible.
The word ‘ziarah’ itself means pilgrimage; and this Ziarah is a story about that pilgrimage to a grave unbeknownst to the pilgrim. The final result is pretentious but delightful and homey.
In Ziarah, Mbah Sri was separated from her husband, Pawiro during Dutch’s Operation Kraai in 1948. The husband marched into the war but never returned; even, the news about him or his grave if he’s dead never returned. Mbah Sri learns about her husband’s grave whereabout from a man who claimed to have fought alongside him during the war. Ill-equipped with such information only, Mbah Sri braces up to start her pilgrimage.
Unbeknownst to her, Prapto (Rukman Rosadi), a grandson who always takes care of her, is looking for her to settle his marriage arrangement. Like it or not, Prapto must go after his grandmom across the rural Javanese landscape.
In presenting the story, Ziarah takes the road film approach with several checkpoints spread around the duration. BW wraps these checkpoints with information, testimonies and homage towards the culture he’s been living in. Javanese philosophy and mysticism adorn the journey, while historical views (from Dutch military aggression, ‘65 genocide, Kedung Ombo dam controversy, et al) enrich the subtext. Even, the film itself is built upon Javanese value, in which husband and wife should’ve been buried side by side when both has deceased. In short, Ziarah presents its story as a tribute to Javanese culture and history.
Narrative frame blends with multi-themed discourse, which at one side enrich the universe Ziarah takes place, but at the other side diverts the emotional drive of the story. The journey should’ve ended on high emotional notes with a suffocating finale (which immediately reminds me to Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years), but the film’s penchant to outpour discourse materials hinders it from reaching its emotional pinnacle.
BW’s directing is top-notch in crafting naturalistic charm in all aspects of the storytelling. Ponco Sutiyem acts if she’s re-living the memory, while Rukman Rosadi brings delicateness. Other history perpetrators and legion of cameos (most notably: directors Hanung Bramantyo, Yosep Anggi Noen, and Ismail Basbeth) brings gravitas to the narrative, although the feels of cinéma vérité lingers. Ziarah feels earthy and homey for those who has lived that world, yet, it might feel a little alienating, although it might prove to be a good stepping stone to learn more profoundly about Javanese anthropology.
Final verdict: between the nature of discourse and storytelling, Ziarah walks as an arbitrator, telling an emotional love story but never really living to the romance as a product of love, but a product of culture, history, and mysticism.
Drama Written & Directed by: BW Purba Negara Starred by: Ponco Sutiyem, Rukman Rosadi Runtime: 87 mins