This is my prisoner.
Considering the seemingly endless number of Hollywood male directors tackling women empowerment films as a means to declare themselves feminists while also—wittingly or not—preserving their careers at the expense of the women they’re seemingly in solidarity with, you must give renowned Indonesian director Garin Nugroho credit for recognizing the treatment he wrote entitled “The Woman” needed a woman’s voice. This isn’t rocket science and yet men in power staying in their lane are still the exception. Nugroho told Mouly Surya about the project during a film festival they both juried and gave her full creative control to take it wherever she believed it had to go for success. And to hear Surya talk about the state of women in rural areas of Indonesia, she went there.
Writing alongside producing partner Rama Adi, Surya takes Marlina Si Pembunuh dalam Empat Babak [Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts] to Sumba Island: a land of stunning beauty, unchecked crime, and archaic notions of gendered roles. Marsha Timothy plays the titular widow left with the debt of spending everything on the spiritually imperative (and exorbitantly expensive) process of burying her son a year previously. So mired in poverty, her husband’s corpse sits in the corner of their home covered in blankets until his own funeral can be paid for. Because her situation is known throughout the community, a band of criminals roaming the island to steal everything they can without fear of retribution wastes no time knocking at her door. Markus (Egy Fedly) enters, sits down for tea, and tells her what’s to happen.
He explains that six more men are coming to take her livestock and any remaining money. They will congregate for a dinner she’ll prepare and then rape her one by one. They will do this without unsheathing their sabers too because nobody is around to save her. Not only that, Markus smiles to say Marlina should be happy about her circumstances because it isn’t everyday a woman in her position is graced with the lust of so many men at once. With little time to prepare, she must use her wits and Markus’ demand for chicken soup to concoct a means of dispatching them. When Act One is complete she’ll be standing on the side of the road the next morning with a decapitated head under her arm.
It’s a brutal opening that pulls no punches as far as the entitlement of these men and the strength of their eventual murderer. Marlina uses their carnal desires against them, striking swiftly to survive the night—albeit not unscathed. But what’s next? Two of the seven men weren’t present during her revenge and thus could return any moment. Her idea is to go to the police and file a report for her assailants’ crimes, but the authorities are just more men who think women aren’t their equals. Marlina walking into the precinct with a dead man’s head in her hands probably won’t go over well. So her journey towards safety isn’t going to be an easy one and she’ll ultimately be putting everyone she meets in danger too.
That cast of characters is an eclectic bunch with a welcome sense of humor. It would be easy to assume Surya created a genre film full of blood and vengeance, but that’s not the case. The violence isn’t graphic and swords are only swung twice. This is conversely a bona fide independent drama about more than simply Marlina’s fate. She’s the focal point because of the stand she takes against these monsters, but Surya is shining a light on the oppressiveness of Sumba Island as a whole. Coming from a metropolitan city like Jakarta herself, seeing these people in-action must have been akin to culture shock. And when the disparity between what should be and what is proves that vast, sometimes the only way to process is laughter.
So we chuckle when young, pregnant Novi (Dea Panendra) stops in her tracks upon spying Marlina’s “trophy” despite having been extremely excited to see her seconds before. It’s a brilliant visual treat that keeps us on our toes without allowing things to fall into farce. Marlina understands the lunacy of what’s happening, but has no other choice. If she must hijack a bus to get to town, she will. If she has to trust a stranger like Yohana (Rita Matu Mona)—herself a spitfire who sees the head and thinks nothing of it considering she has her own places to go and frankly knows he probably deserved it—she will. This older woman is both comic relief and authentically jaded epitome of what this lifestyle produces.
I’m talking about the patriarchal rule of law: something that becomes a character unto itself. It’s one thing to show “evil” men terrorizing an innocent widow, but Surya reveals how “evil” consists of levels. It could be how Novi’s husband treats her with paranoia that their baby being late means she cheats on him with other men. It could be the way a police officer asks Marlina why she let a “skinny old man” rape her. Or even the dismissive father of little Topan (Safira Ahmad) who rewards his daughter’s above and beyond efforts to cajole Marlina into being a customer at their restaurant with a scowl. Besides the boy traveling with Yohana (Anggun Priambodo‘s Ian), every single man in this film deserves a bullet in the brain.
That doesn’t happen of course. Marlina has the tenacious Franz (Yoga Pratama) on her tail and thus must devote all energy towards stopping him. Even so, seeing them can’t help amplifying our desire for her victory because what she’s doing is about more than one night. She’s fighting a lifetime of abuse and the other women along the way recognize as much to willingly have her back in that pursuit. So Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts becomes a battle cry for the invisible women caught under the thumb of a male-centric community far-removed from the otherwise progressiveness of Indonesia’s urban areas. It’s a drama as steeped in gender politics as tense thrills underneath a western lens of gorgeously static wide-angles, a mesmerizing score, and brilliantly emotive performances.
courtesy of Icarus Films and KimStim