94 minutes, Indonesia, 2017
Reviewed by Arturo Arredondo
Indonesian filmmaker Mouly Surya tries her hand at the western genre and ultimately succeeds in this feminist subversion of rape and revenge. Appropriately billed as a “satay Western,” Marlina in its approach recalls the outsider perspective of Spaghetti Westerns and, of course, the artistic aspirations of the legendary “ramen western” Tanpopo written and directed by the dearly missed Itami Juzo. Marlina it is a worthwhile commentary on the trials that so many women have and will endure throughout their lives.
Marlina (Marsha Timothy) is a widow in the midst of grieving her husband, whose corpse has been left in the position he died in, wrapped in blankets. A group of bandits visits her house, openly discussing their plans to steal her livestock and rape her. When Markus (Egy Fedly), the leader of the bandits goes to sleep, Marlina poisons the chicken soup she is preparing for them, but the leader awakens before she can trick him into eating the soup, and he rapes her. She kills him in self-defense and flees her homestead, but a bandit who was sent away earlier returns and finds the bodies and his hunt for Marlina begins.
The score, by Jakarta-based indie rock band Efek Rumah Kaca, only appears during a handful of scenes; namely, the transitions but there is a key scene where the score is used to emphasize the tension between the characters. For the most part, it is a quiet film and the music is calm and unobtrusive, juxtaposed with the violence within the plot and the not-so-peaceful events that will unfold.
Cinematographer Yunus Pasolang wisely chose the 2.35:1 aspect ratio and uses it for maximum effect for the numerous outdoor scenes. The widescreen cinematography gratuitously showcases some awe-inspiring scenery in Sumba, where this was filmed, but we wouldn’t have it any other way, would we? It’s camerawork on par with Roger Deakins’ exemplary outdoor photography work with the Coen Bros.
Marlina is, above all, a film steeped in Indonesian culture but with a universal concern for women. That it was written and directed by a woman is readily apparent, as the female characters are not sexualized for the male gaze and that the rapes depicted are not eroticized as they often are in films by men. Marlina and her friend Novi are even shown grappling with guilt and pity towards their male tormentors, not because they’re weak and feminine but because they’re complex and caring individuals, a fact fully revealed when Marlina is willing to dote on a young child whilst hiding from the bandit hounding her. These kinds of depictions are seldom afforded to women in Hollywood, so if more of this is what Mouly Surya has in store for her future films, her career is definitely worth following.