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Monday, April 9, 2018


Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts is... well, for a movie that I confess I'm having a difficult time figuring out my feelings on, is remarkably upfront about what it is going to do. Broken up into four acts - "The Robbery," "The Journey," "The Confession," and "The Birth" - the film tracks Marlina, a recent widow whose husband left her in debt, as a group of debt collectors show up to take everything she owns... and then her, as well. But they don't expect her to fight back. Marlina manages to kill a few of the men who came to her farm, and then sets off in a journey across the rural Indonesia to tell the police what happened.

Along the way, she meets deeply pregnant (nearly 10 months!) Novi, a neighbor who is trying to travel to the city to find her jealous jerk of a husband. She is hunted by two gang members who survived Marlina's first night as they attempt to reclaim the head of their murdered boss. She commandeers a bus and drags a small handful of bystanders into the drama; she meets a little girl with a connection to an emotional point in her life and tries to find a moment of peace. Each Act of the film feels a bit like a different genre, all held together by the performances of Marlina (Marsha Timothy) and Novi (Dea Panendra).

And they are excellent performances. Marsha Timothy's Marlina is an open wound of a performance, a lean font of melancholy fury. Timothy captures the character's almost resigned anger beautifully, never coming across as an artificial construct or an action heroine but instead as someone who is profoundly familiar with all the ways your life can go south and has resolved not to give in to them. The best parts of the film let her bounce of Dea Panendra's pregnant, ebullient Novi, who comes to accept and support Marlina far quicker than I suspect most of us might, and who is on a quest of her own. Both are women who are held down by the patriarchy's strong grasp on the island, and director Mouly Surya does a great job interweaving their stories in a way that feels surprisingly natural.

As good as those performances are, however, the film can't help but feel deeply episodic because of its structure, and not all of these episodes work as well as the others. Novi's story initially seems like it will be deeply tied to Marlina's, but eventually takes its own detour -- before sharply, unexpectedly, and not entirely believably crashing back into Marlina's. Other characters may drop in for a delightful scene, but never come back when they clearly could, or vanish when they lose relevance. It seems like a small mark, but Marlina is often deeply invested in its characters' relationships and the emotions that drive them, so the handful of supporting characters who fail to leave a mark tend to stand out.

That said, even in its weakest moments, Marlina is absolutely gorgeous. There are a handful of scenes and images in this one that have stuck with me long past anything else I saw in the festival. Mouly Surya has an eye for recurring visual motifs that lend rural Indonesia the same iconic, almost mystic, grandeur of the mythic American West, and she's seemingly single-handedly making what feels like the most authentic Western I've seen in ages.

While Marlina's hook - a lady with a machete on a quest for justice - promises exploitation movie thrills, Surya's film is more meditative than that. Don't go into this one expecting the action-movie setpieces of fellow breakout Indonesian film The Raid. Marlina is instead a neo-Western, far more akin to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, albeit with stark feminist leanings. Like a great many other neo-Westerns, Marlina is less interested in the acts of violence than in the society that bred them. What pushed Marlina to this point? American neo-Westerns often function as a commentary on modern society, an attempt to demystify our classical cultural relationships to violence, authority, and prejudice. Marlina, I think, functions in a similar vein, taking an exploitation premise - the rape-revenge film - and shaping it into something that is meant to interrogate the particular way the patriarchy functions in Marlina's rural, deeply traditional community. 

Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts was written by Rama Adi, Garin Nugroho, and Mouly Surya. Directed by Mouly Surya, Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts stars Marsha Timothy, Dea Panendra, and Yoga Pratama.
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