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'Marlina' redefines women’s strength through polar extremes

Asmara Wreksono
Asmara Wreksono

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta | Wed, November 22, 2017 | 03:38 pm
'Marlina' redefines women’s strength through polar extremes

Marsha Timothy appears in this still from 'Marlina The Murderer in Four Acts', a film set in Indonesia's "Wild East" that redefines the strength of women. (

I’ve never been a fan of artsy films, especially ones that premiere at important festivals. Still, I gave Marlina the Murderer In Four Acts a chance. Its glowing reviews and positive reception in several countries intrigued me.

The film opens with a stunning shot of the picturesque Sumbanese savannah as the backdrop to a small, modest house that belongs to Marlina (Marsha Timothy), a widow.

A man named Markus (Egi Fedly) approaches the house with his motorcycle, then tells Marlina that his friends will soon join him to take her livestock because of her unpaid debts and then rape her, and that she should be thankful that men still want her. The helpless Marlina, who has nobody to protect her, is in agony, but ultimately decides to take matters into her own hands.

This striking beginning to the movie soon takes viewers along with Marlina on her journey to find justice, and this is where things get interesting.

Marlina’s expressionless, quiet demeanor after the string of events that happens within 24 hours may raise a lot of questions in the audience’s minds. We never really know what she’s thinking, planning or about to say, and this is what is so mesmerizing about her. She may come across as cold-blooded, but her encounter with the girl Topan introduces another side to Marlina that perhaps existed before her husband died. 

Read also: ‘Marlina the Murderer’ wins at Morocco women's film fest

Director Mouly Surya successfully defines the stark contrast between Sumba’s sunny and beautiful natural landscape and its dark and ugly social truth, where traditional male privilege still reigns supreme among the quiet but secretly feisty women who fear (almost) nothing. Marlina also makes a pointed criticism in its portrayal of local authorities, who treat her like a second-class citizen when she files her report. 

Every extremity in Marlina the Murderer In Four Acts is depicted in a matter-of-fact way, which makes the viewer wonder whether the Sumbanese are really culturally inured to issues like rape and murder. One may also wonder, is this the cause of Marlina’s deadpan expression?

Marsha Timothy said on Tuesday in a post-screening discussion: “I had no prior reference to Marlina’s situation, so I observed Sumbanese women’s expressions before filming. They are strong women who are in charge of the harder house chores, and they do have these rather expressionless faces.”

The "Wild West" treatment of the movie is a tongue-in-cheek reference to this movie being set in Indonesia’s "Wild East". Its musical score and overall visual feel might remind you of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, and this might be why a Hollywood fan like me can easily get sucked into Marlina’s story.

Its rather slow pace went unnoticed, as I was kept wondering what would happen next, trying to guess what Marlina was thinking, and laughing at the innocent but often hilarious remarks made by Marlina’s pregnant friend, Novi (Dea Panendra).

The powerful women portrayed in Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts redefines women’s strength, and whether you are more a fan of Hollywood fare or of artsy festival films, giving this movie a chance is a must. Who knows, you might like it – or you might love it, like I did.