With her husband dead and prepared for burial in her front room, Marlina (Marsha Timothy) finds her home invaded by a group of strange men. As she has not yet paid for the last funeral she required, they have come to steal her livestock and to rape her.
It is a stark and troubling opening, but it leads to a surprisingly powerful and heartfelt drama. Its title, Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts, does rather give away what happens to that group of men, but it does not effectively describe the wonderful qualities that Indonesian director Mouly Surya brings to her third feature film. It is sometimes tense, and sometimes tragic. It has moments of thoughtful drama, and moments of wonderful comedy. It’s a tremendous film: stark, beautiful and impeccably put together.
Marsha Timothy is excellent as the titular Marlina. She has suffered tragedy – the full extent of which is slowly teased out over the course of the film – yet continues to wake up each morning and going through her day. Her hard resolve lacks bitterness; she simply does what she must to emotionally survive. Timothy gives her a remarkable patient and careful quality. So much of her performance is in the eyes.
The film is set on the Indonesian island of Sumba which, with its relentless sunlight and harsh, isolated scrublands, honestly looks nothing like any kind of Indonesian landscape I have ever seen. It gives the film the aesthetic of a spaghetti western, and Surya wisely recognises this. It looks like a western. Several major elements of the narrative feel like a western. Yudhi Arfani and Zeke Khaseli’s score blends Morricone-esque melodies and instrumentation with traditional Indonesian music to marvellous effect. At some points it gets purposefully on the nose: Marlina attempts to take a bus into town to confess to murdering her attackers, but circumstances separate her from the bus in the middle of nowhere. She hides a horse into town instead.
There is a wonderful meditate quality to the film, which is shot through a series of long, oftentimes static takes. It has several lengthy scenes of dialogue – significantly between women, with the film’s entire male cast portrayed as varying kinds of monster. The gang leader Markus (a brilliantly sinister Egi Fedly) is the worst, invading Marlina’s home, warning her he is going to rape her, but demanding she cook him dinner first. Even at the least reprehensible end Marlina still has to face bus drivers who don’t want to let her board, and police officers who blandly apologise that they won’t have the budget for a rape kit for another month. Surya paints a bleak picture of rural Indonesia, but she then populates it with incredibly strong and resolute women. Dea Panendra plays Marlina’s pregnant friend Novi very effectively, managing to show off both sharp differences to Marlina but similar strengths as well.
There is an arthouse edge to this picture, which is deliberately small in scale and leisurely in execution, but it has an immediate appeal. Thanks to Marsha Timothy’s central performance and Surya’s simple, elegantly arranged direction, it’s impossible to take your eyes off it.