Bumi Manusia a.k.a. This Earth of Mankind by Pramoedya Ananta Toer with other titles dubbed as Buru Quartet has long been sanctified as one of the most important Indonesia’s literature. Conceived during the political exile in Buru Island (hence the quartet’s title), the chronicle of a native aristocratic man and a concubine against the oppressive government of Dutch colonialism is vocal and thought-provoking. Even long after independence, the narrative is deemed too powerful that the New Order regime banned the books from nationwide circulation; a handful copy of the books had survived and found international circulations, making it the most popular Indonesian literature not released in its home country. It juxtaposes the story about being oppressed in its homeland.
Only when the New Regime falls, Bumi Manusia found a way back to Indonesia. Since then, discussions of adapting the epic into a feature film have sparked; but, the production fell through until Falcon Pictures (a box office making production company) steps up. Given the studio’s brand image and portfolio of goofy comedies and commercial romance, a serious historical story does not seem to be in line; but, then the production went on, even when the director’s seat became a hot seat before the experienced director, Hanung Bramantyo (Kartini), took the mantle. To begin with, the director took a rather radical move by casting the heartthrob, Iqbaal Ramadhan (Dilan 1990 & Dilan 1991), as the protagonist. From there, it’s quite apparent how the movie incarnation will be: spectacular and blockbuster-minded.
Similarly to Kartini (2017), Bramantyo’s version of Bumi Manusia is tailor-made and catered to appeal to modern, mainstream audiences. With a fresh roster of good-looking actors, the movie loosely incorporates gestures and languages with modern taste. Moreover, the director, working on a screenplay by Salman Aristo, frames the story as a period love story, while faithfully most plot-points in the source material. Such a presentation, story-wise, does not stray away from the source, but somehow sacrifices the novel’s taut character study and reduces the irony to a mere background.
The plot mostly follows Minke (Iqbaal), a native youth studying in a Dutch institute, as he admires the modernity of the European powers. Mingling with Dutch-Indies people, he soon meets a Dutch-Indies maiden, Annelies Mellema (Mawar Eva de Jongh), daughter of a Dutchman and his local concubine, Nyai Ontosoroh (Sha Ine Febriyanti). As romance begins to bloom between Minke and Annelies, the former begins to develop admiration towards Nyai Ontosoroh, a progressive woman whose thought is ahead of her time.
Through the 181-minute duration, Bumi Manusia chronicles tragedies after tragedies that follow Minke and Nyai Ontosoroh. The Nyai’s husband dies of poisoning; the family must undergo a series of trials which undermine the right of native people. From there, the movie goes on putting forward the bitter truths of colonialism cruelty—from the discrimination towards native people, the laws which favor colonialists, the negative stigma brainwashed by the Dutch towards the native people and, most importantly, the normative conflicts between Eastern norms and Western norms. Bramantyo wraps the long-winding stories as a background of Minke and Annelies’ romance, which at times, felt like an Indonesian Romeo and Juliet. The principal conflicts are treated merely as subtexts to spice up the romance dragged over three hours. In adapting a novel often dubbed as one of the most difficult stories to be filmed (given the constant internal conflicts within the protagonists), the filmmakers have to address the dire choices. In the end, this Bumi Manusia decides to choose the prolonged romance frame than highlighting the tragedy of humanity for an even longer duration.
Bramantyo treats this movie as a massive production that highlights grandiosity and the production scale. However, the movie somehow fails to capture the grandiosity as a holistic picture. While the Javanese-inspired production design is exquisite, the colonialist’s world seems quite artificial. The Buitenzorg farm a.k.a. Mellema’s residence is possibly the most apparent example. The scale of this production also affects the acting department. Bramantyo seems to over concern on Iqbaal and Sha Ine Febriyanti’s performance that he neglects other cast members, whose acting feels raw and unpolished. Iqbaal indeed flaunts what he does best in portraying the rebellious persona of Minke; and yet, this movie unveils his lack of ranges. Meanwhile, Sha Ine Febriyanti single-handedly saves the acting department from the total chaos.
In a more nuanced setting, the momentous performance by Iqbaal Ramadhan and Sha Ine Febriyanti respectively might triumph more than in this well-intended yet tonally abridged adaptation of a colossal piece. That does not mean that Bramantyo’s Bumi Manusia is a bad movie. At least, it’s able to deliver its most explicit message and probably bring awareness to the literary phenomenon to the wider audiences.