Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts

Review by Alison Traynor

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Indonesian director Mouly Surya’s third film is an exquisite piece of art-house cinema that engages with the difficult themes of gender power relations, sexual violence and death in a nuanced and intelligent way. Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts presents the perfect combination of a captivating plot, stunning cinematography and high-quality acting. Surya takes several common tropes of the western cinematic genre and inventively alters them, enhancing the traditionally masculine space of westerns by inserting a powerful female protagonist to create a compelling western-style feminist revenge drama.

This film tells the story of Marlina (Marsha Timothy), a grieving widow, who is visited in her home by the sinister Markus (Egy Fedley). He informs her that he and his gang intend to rob her, take her livestock and rape her. The cruelty inflicted on Marlina by the gang is inherently gendered. With the absence of a male presence, conspicuous by the mummified body of her late husband that resides in her house, Marlina is targeted as a victim. When the other men arrive, Markus insists that Marlina cooks dinner for them all. This ironic request emphasises the significance of feminine gender roles that are reinforced by the gang in order to force women to act subserviently. This complex theme of gendered power relations continues to be dealt with throughout the film.

Satisfyingly, the misogynistic attitudes of these men prove to be their downfall as they underestimate the strength and resourcefulness of Marlina. She outwits them and reverses these power relations by using her role as cook to her advantage by poisoning the soup, resulting in the deaths of several gang members. Likewise, when Markus attempts to assert his power over her through rape she beheads him in a glorious display of Tarantinoesque violence. This is an act that enables her to reassert her power and autonomy, which she struggles tirelessly to retain as she is pursued by the remaining two gang members, which comprises much of the remaining plot.

Visually, this film is extremely impressive. Wide lens shots of the parched and often desolate landscape reflect the feelings of isolation and fear that Marlina experiences on her journey to the nearest police station, carrying the severed head of Markus while being sought by his surviving gang members. This sweeping landscape contrasts starkly with the interior shots of Marlina’s house, where the skilful lighting creates a sense of entrapment and foreboding when the gang is present.

Despite the serious subject matter, Surya prevents the film from entering the realm of excessive morbidness. Moments of deadpan humour lighten the tone, this comic relief often being facilitated by another brilliant female character, the ditsy yet determined Novi (Dea Panendra). The relationship between Marlina and Novi also acts to limit the bleakness of the film, as it demonstrates a touching celebration of female friendship. Despite the adversities that Novi faces, be that the violence inflicted by her jealous husband or the threats of gang member, she remains unyieldingly loyal to Marlina. This relationship demonstrates the power of female friendship and solidarity in a world that is inherently dangerous for women. A particularly redemptive and cathartic moment is depicted during the film’s conclusion when Marlina helps Novi to give birth, ending the film on an optimistic note, the newborn child being an obvious allusion to hope and new beginnings.

Overall, Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts is a beautifully crafted and engaging film that has something to offer for every type of film fan.