Review: In a cruel world without favor for women, Marlina (Marsha Timothy) refuses to surrender and be a victim; she, instead, embraces her inner strength and decides to fight back against patriarchal tyranny.
Exquisite, powerful and poignant, Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts (Marlina si Pembunuh dalam Empat Babak), is a tale of empowerment wrapped as a Far-East ‘Western’ revenge thriller with strong femme fatale to root for. It’s a quintessential work for Indonesian female director, Mouly Surya, whose previous works (fiksi. and What They Don’t Talk about When They Talk about Love) revolves around determined female characters, too.
The film’s main setting, Sumba—a gorgeous island blessed with beautiful landscapes, which ironically is dry and arid, appears to be the film’s biggest symbolism, reflecting the life of women in the film and in the island, generally. Constricted under strong patriarchal culture and society for their whole life, Marlina and other women’s roles are marginalized. Without men, those women are conditioned to be defenseless and honor-less; but, with men, their full, undivided fealty are always demanded and if things gone awry, they can always be antagonized.
In orchestrating the tale of resistance to such circumstance, Surya and co-writer Rama Adi modify classic Revisionist Western of Sam Peckinpah or Sergio Leone’s era by substituting the desert setting to Sumba’s golden savanna and twisting the masculine-heavy story into a feminist-driven one. The new hybrid of Western subgenre is then presented in a four-act-structured story about Marlina as she becomes a murderer (or revenger), hence the title. Each of the four acts—namely “Robbery”, “The Journey”, “The Confession”, and “The Birth”—represents key events in Marlina’s fateful day and is respectively filled with urgency on how she acts.
“I will be the most miserable woman tonight,” Marlina claims…
It begins when a group of raiders led by an old lecher, Markus (Egi Fedly) come by Marlina’s farmhouse. Her husband was recently deceased and his body has been preserved and mummified in a corner of the house; that goes without saying that Marlina is defenseless by the raiders’ view. Those evil men demands proper hospitality as (of course) respected guests; therefore, they ask her to cook them some kind of chicken soup (for souls). Yet, more to it, they also demand her money, her livestock and, eventually, her body for the seven of them (is it some kind of allusion to John Sturges’ Magnificent Seven?). “I will be the most miserable woman tonight,” Marlina claims… but we know she has plans. She must be clever and brave to survive the night and she eventually is. The next thing we know is she’s already wandering by the dusty road, machete on her right hand and a severed head on her left one. And, that’s only the first act.
Stark, static cinematography by Yunus Pasolang completes Surya’s precisely crafted mise en scène and helps Marlina gains momentum upfront. In contrast with the first act’s constricted set, Pasolang’s keen eyes also guides the femme fatale over the next three acts set in arid Sumba landscapes. The ethereal cinematography blends in perfectly with Zeke Khaseli and Yudhi Arfani’s impeccable scoring that channels Western classic scores with local tunes. The flute track, heard in the trailer, might become one of the most soulful Western tunes for years to date.
Gaining such momentum upfront doesn’t make tension and excitement in Marlina decline. Surya crafts each act with references to local subtexts and turbulence inside the protagonist. Act I, the most brutal and austere segment, deals with breakthrough from solid confinement. Act II highlights metaphorical journey that Marlina and her comrade, Novi (Dea Panendra), who has been pregnant for 10 months, take to accomplish their own goal. This chapter is lightly presented with insightful banters and discussions about living as a woman in a society which isn’t fair to woman. Act III further emboldens the notion of the sexual discrimination that has been a common practice. Finally, Act IV enhances the film’s whole point to break through the domination of male-centered film to deliver a strong message of empowerment.
Marsha Timothy holds the weight of the film’s poignant theme as the lead and she has delivered a nuanced performance, which gives the world’s femme fatales a good name. Dea Panendra in supporting lead provides the film with a more vibrant atmosphere and, in the end, her collaboration with Timothy injects Marlina with stronger empowering message. Egi Fedly as the film’s big baddie gives a harrowing portrayal of patriarchal control, which lingers long even after his character, Markus, is decapitated; his severed head emanates creepiness and feeling of disgust, while his headless body that follows around brings along moral ambiguity of classic Western.
For the entire elegant irony, Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts is a majestically magnificent story. It feels like a beauty that radiates upon bitterness and a victory that resonates upon bruises. It’s a grace to Indonesian cinema and, more to it, women’s cinema.
Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts (2017)
a.k.a. Marlina si Pembunuh dalam Empat Babak
Drama, Thriller Directed by: Mouly Surya Written by: Mouly Surya, Rama Adi (screenplay), Garin Nugroho (story) Starred by: Marsha Timothy, Egy Fedly, Dea Panendra Runtime: 90 mins Rated 21+ (Indonesia)