Marlina the Murderer: Questioning Choices in the Indonesian Feminist Western

Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts. Directed by Mouly Surya. 2017.

Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts

Mouly Surya (director and writer),  Rama Adi and Garin Nugroho (writers), Yunus Pasolang (cinematographer), Kelvin Nugroho (editor)
Marsha Timothy, Dea Panendra, Egy Fedly, Yoga Pratama (cast)
September 7, 2017 (Toronto International Film Festival 2017), May 24, 2017 (Cannes Film Festival)

Warning: Spoilers

Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts is described as an Indonesian contemporary feminist western, which is a hard premise to pass up. Marlina (Marsha Timothy) is a young widow who suffered a stillbirth the year before and lost her husband soon after. The film opens up with the audience being introduced to Marlina — who has been living with her mummified husband’s corpse — when the first of seven robbers, Markus (Egy Fedly), enters her home.

Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts. Directed by Mouly Surya. 2017.

As the title suggests, the film is divided into four acts: The Robbery, The Journey, The Confession, and The Birth. In the first act, seven men enter Marlina’s home; Markus–the oldest–being the first, with the others all joining him later. Two ultimately go, leaving behind Marlina with five men intent on not just “robbing” her physical possessions like her livestock, but also her agency through rape.

What happens afterwards is Marlina wresting back control of her life, which means bumping up against patriarchal society, like when she tries to report the crime and the officer asks her why she let herself be raped. Or the fact that as a widow, she was vulnerable to people like Markus and the other robber, Franz (Yoga Pratama). She’s a woman without men in her life to protect her against the violence of male outsiders.

The conversation of rape is taboo in mainstream Indonesian films, according to an article in The Jakarta Post, and that’s something I take into consideration when I critique the use or depiction of rape in the film. While North America could do better with how it discusses rape in the mainstream, the topic is more out in the open to the point where we can have conversations about the choice of showing rape on screen; whether the victim/survivor of it is defined by it; and if the societal aftermath of it is remarked upon. We even talk about who can take on the topic of rape because of how gendered it is and how it often becomes trauma porn.

With all that said, I had issues with the second rape scene in the film. It felt gratuitous and antithetical to what the film was trying to do. It ultimately comes down to choice. Why? Why have a protagonist like Marlina who, in the midst of her first rape, beheads her attacker and goes off to seek justice, only to then place her back into that space (her home) and re-experience that trauma, so that another female character, Novi, can be the one to behead the second man (Franz, in this case)?

Was it to make sure that Novi–Marlina’s pregnant neighbour–understood the implications of violent patriarchy by having her intervene with a machete? Was the physical abuse that Novi receives from her husband, or just living in the world as a woman, not enough? Or was it because as our source of comedic relief, she needed to understand the harshness that Marlina had faced?

I’m not sure. The film’s pacing and narrative choices didn’t let me love it like I wanted to, but the last thirty minutes or so really caused a visceral reaction to it. Is this a necessity when the topic is scarcely broached? Maybe. Unfortunately, it didn’t work for me.

Ardo Omer

Ardo Omer

Former WWAC editor. Current curmudgeon and Batman's personal assistant. Icon art by Diana Sim.