Marlina The Murderer in Four Acts – Film Review by Frank L.
Director: Mouly Surya
Writers: Rama Adi, Garin Nugroho
Stars: Egy Fedly, Dea Panendra, Yoga Pratama
Sumba is a desolate, scenically magnificent region of Indonesia but economically primitive. In nineteenth century America, from which the idea of “the Western” was created, the same elements existed. Simlarly in both, law and order was more a figment of the imagination than a reality. Marlina (Marsha Timothy) is recently widowed and is unable to pay for the burial of her husband having recently born the cost of burying their child. She has no money and is vulnerable on her isolated small holding. She is visited by a band of thugs who rustle her cattle, pigs and hens but require also from her much more. This first part of the film is entitled “The robbery”. It is followed by “the journey”, “the confession” and “the birth”.
Marlina’s poverty is exemplified from the beginning by the corpse of her husband which is propped against a wall in her living space in a mummified state. However, his eerie presence does not deter the thugs as they take over her primitive dwelling. Their leader is Markus (Egly Fedly) a scrawny, tatooed, nasty piece of goods of indeterminate age but probably in his fifties. He arrives first and makes it clear what is in store for her after she has cooked a meal for them.
Although set in the present, guns are not the weapon of violence but primitive machetes. Indeed the inherent medieval violence of a machete stand in contrast to the mobile phones which also figure prominently in the story. Marlina knows how to use both and in the case of the machete with surgical precision. Marlina is a woman of few words but highly resourceful as she demonstrates when she cooks the chicken soup, the dish of choice, the thugs demand that she makes for them.
Marlina on the journey section comes across one Novi (Dea Penandra), a young girl, who is in an advanced stage of pregnancy when Marlina meets her. Novi has to contend with an abusive male partner which intensifies her plight. Marlina’s wanderings and Novi’s intersect and leads the story through the remaining sections.
The scale of the landscape of Sumba coupled with its simmering heat creates an overbearing and unforgiving environment. But the determination of Marlina to avenge what she has suffered at the hands of Markus and his thugs remains pure. She will not be deterred. Her methods are unorthodox but executed with precision. The cinematography is enhanced by an atmospheric musical score by Yudi Arfani and Zeke Khaseli. It adds elegantly to the tension. Undoubtedly, there is violence but it is performed with an oriental rituality which leavens its brutality. As the title makes clear Marlina is a formidable woman.
Surya has created a modern day Western but has set it in the Far East. The other volte-face is that the hero is Marlina who dominates the film. While the female characters are impressive the men do not pass muster. This is a beautifully made film and an inventive take on the Western genre.