IN a year when revenge stories are everywhere at the Cannes film festival, one film has stood out as a “gem” of the genre.
Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts is that very rare beast, an Indonesian feminist Western with a neat line in dry humour.
Critics have been jumping over themselves to praise it with Screen International calling it a “thoroughly enjoyable, visually ravishing gem … that gives World Cinema a good name”.
It is not like any film you have ever seen before.
For a start one of its – non-speaking – characters is a mummified man sitting on a porch.
And not too many films with a heroine who spends most of her time travelling by bus and horseback with a severed head in her bag are praised for their subtlety.
Which is what pleases the movie’s young director Mouly Surya the most.
“It’s not in your face. That is not the Indonesian or the Asian way,” she told AFP at Cannes, where her film is showing in the Directors’ Fortnight section.
“We are not like Americans or Europeans, we like to do things subtly.”
Nothing demonstrates that more than the film’s chilling opening sequence when a man on a motorbike calls at the isolated homestead of a widow on the remote Indonesian island of Sumba.
After asking for a drink he tells her is going to take all her livestock, and that afterwards he and his friends will rape her. Then he orders her to make him some chicken soup.
“On Sumba, where lots of people carry swords, brigands come and warn you they are going to rob your house the day before they do it,” 36-year-old Surya said.
“It’s the tradition and is seen as polite.
“They don’t put the gun in front of your head, they just put it on the table and say good evening to their victims.”
That makes the fear all the more terrible, Jakarta-born Surya argued.
Sumba and its culture is exotic even for Indonesians, she admitted. “It’s only a hour from Bali but it is another world,” Surya said.
Its dry rolling hills look more like Texas than the lush landscape of most Indonesian islands.
Many of its inhabitants are animists and as in some other islands in the Muslim-majority country families live with the mummified corpses of the dead for years, often serving them meals as if they were still alive.
People know Indonesia as the world’s most populous Muslim nation, said Surya, “but is also incredibly diverse”.
And even on Sumba, where the society is strongly patriarchal, there are plenty of strong women much like the film’s heroine, she insisted.
“One woman, who is a queen of a village I draw strongly on (for some of the characters), and another character is actually based on my aunt,” who also comes from the countryside, Surya said.
Indonesian star Marsha Timothy plays the widow while young singer Panendra Larasati, who made her name on the Indonesian Idol television show, is a revelation in her screen debut as her “10-month pregnant” friend.
Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts is at the forefront of a resurgence in Indonesia’s film industry since President Joko Widodo came to power in 2014.
The idea for the film came from one of the country’s best known directors internationally, Garin Nugroho of Letter for an Angel fame.
“He had been in Sumba and was at a market where he saw a man carrying a decapitated head,” Surya said. “He took it all around the market and showed it to everyone and explained why he had done it, and then calmly went to the police station and gave himself up,” she said.
“It got me thinking…” — AFP Relaxnews