Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts: Rape-Revenge Fable Hits Feminist Bullseye

By Liam Lacey

Rating: A

Tired of the same old, same old? For something genuinely different, check out the third feature from 37-year-old Indonesian director Mouly Surya, a feminist rape-revenge fable with a headless ghost, women bonding against sadistic misogyny, and some spectacular cinematography on the rolling landscapes of the island of Sumba, in eastern Indonesia. 

 Just your everyday outing with a severed head...

Just your everyday outing with a severed head...

Dubbed a “satay Western” by Variety reviewer Maggie Lee when the film had its debut at Cannes last year, the term seems to have stuck. Certainly, there are echoes of Sergio Leone (especially the cinematography and Ennio Marricone-inspired score) though, for a change, it’s not the boys’ club of the traditional western.

Based on a one-page treatment from Indonesian director Garin Nugroho, and written by Surya and Rama Adi, the drama is broken into four parts: The Robbery, The Journey, The Confession, and The Birth.

We begin with a distant shot of a long-haired middle-aged man, Markus (Egy Fedly), arriving by motorcycle to the home of Marlina (Marsha Timothy), a taciturn young widow. So recently has Marlina been widowed, her mummified dead husband still sits in the living room, awaiting the time when she can pay for his internment. There’s another family grave outside the house and because Marlina hasn’t yet paid for a previous funeral, she’s viewed as ripe for the picking.

Markus tells her that his six friends will soon arrive to steal her livestock and then rape her, making her the “luckiest woman in the world.” In the meantime, she had better make dinner for them. She prepares chicken soup but improvises with some poisonous berries.  Two of the bandits, who have set off with the livestock, escape death. Markus, who slept through dinner, makes the fatal mistake of assaulting Marlina.

In act two, Marlina sets off down the road to the bus stop ready to report to the police, carrying a machete and Markus’ head. At the bus stop, Marlina meets a neighbour, Novi (Dea Panendra) who is extremely pregnant and off to meet her baby’s father, Umbu, a jerk who’s convinced his wife is unfaithful.  The bus (actually a truck) shows up. The driver isn’t comfortable transporting passengers carrying human heads but Marlina, holding her machete to his throat, convinces him otherwise.

Soon, Marlina and Novi are soon joined by third woman, who chatters about the two horses she’s bringing with her as a wedding dowry for a relative.  For a brief respite, it’s a chatty all-female road trip.  Meanwhile, the two surviving bandits — having seen the bodies that Marlina has left behind her — are in pursuit. And walking behind the bus, mournfully strumming on a stringed instrument, is the headless ghost of Markus. 

By act three, Marlina makes it to the police station, where a bored cop is more interested in mundane details (were the livestock marked?) than the trauma Marlina has suffered. There’s a scrambled mixture of emotional registers operating here: the portrayal of men’s misogyny, both extreme and commonplace, feels like modern feminist commentary. At the same time, the performances have an emotionally distanced, ritualized quality — and all of it is wrapped in pure grisly weirdness that only a headless ghost musician can provide.

In the central role, Timothy is typically impassive in close-ups, though the character’s increasing ability to channel her anger becomes the main arc of the film. The final act takes us back to her cottage, for some woman-to-woman bonding and more cathartic carnage.

There were reports from the Cannes screening last year that audiences cheered at the end of the film, which might be misleading. Just don’t go expecting Wonder Woman. This is much more a story of grief than celebration.

Marlina The Murderer in Four Acts. Directed by Mouly Surya. Written by Mouly Surya, Rama Adi and Garin Nugroho. Starring Marsha Timothy, Dea Panendra, and Egy Fedly. Opens June 29 at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox and on iTunes and VOD July 17.