Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts and its director Mouly Surya are pinnacles of Pacific women-centric movies, and of the whole filmmaking medium. Though she has explored relatable and resonant themes in her previous two features (Fiksi, What They Don’t Talk About When They Talk About Love), it was this most recent film that has propelled Surya into the pantheon of our greatest living directors.
Centered on Marlina (Marsha Timothy), a quiet Sumban woman who is beset by Markus (Egy Fedly) and his nonchalant gang of thieves, the film not only subverts the rape-revenge exploitation film into a feminist-charged story of self-determination, but also (surprisingly) deeply humanizes every character, friend or foe. It doesn’t go for cheap shots or easy outs to complicated situations, and consequences always come to affect the entire narrative. The sickly events spurring Marlina to adopt her titular role eventually become emblematic of the culture in which the story takes place. Authorities who are supposed to aid our hero place more focus on Marlina’s actions rather than the circumstances to which she acted in self-defense, with many (men) concluding that her crime is far more severe than those perpetrated by the villains, and she is ultimately denied justice. This journey through an unbalanced and sexist cultural landscape is braided with pitch-black sardonic humor, often highlighting further destructive tendencies prevalent in Indonesian society. This is mainly through her well-meaning motormouth friend Novi (Dea Panendra), Novi’s highly superstitious absentee husband, and a subplot surrounding a pair of horses being delivered as a wedding dowry.
The critic in me fawns over the stylistic callbacks to Spaghetti Westerns, the stellar (largely non-professional) cast, and Yudhi Arfani and Zeke Khaseli’s chillingly amazing musical score. The movie fan in me remarks how Tarantino-esque the film is, though with even sharper sociocultural awareness and tact. The historian in me takes note of how it has further evolved the identity of Pacific cinema, an industry historically monopolized by Western influence for over half of a century, and of women artists in that industry. Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts is an engrossing rollercoaster of aesthetic and emotional awe that only gets more powerful with each reexamination.
Matthew Roe is a film critic, theorist and historian, with over 12 years experience producing film, video, television, and online content. He currently writes the film theory column “Anarchic Cinema” for Film Inquiry, DVD/Blu-ray reviews for Under the Radar Magazine, movie reviews for Film Threat, and contributes features to the Anime News Network. Matthew is a member of the Political Film Society.