PFF26: Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts

Imagine a feminist western – a reticent woman on horseback, traveling empty landscapes with nothing but a severed head, a machete, and a desire for justice.

Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts, a film by Mouly Surya, made its US premiere at the Philadelphia Film Festival yesterday. Marlina the Murderer takes viewers on Marlina’s journey to escape her predicament, and to find justice for the ills that society and this group of criminals impose on her.

The film begins with a young widow named Marlina answering her door. An old man enters, informing the widow that tonight he and his six friends will take turns raping her. He says this softly, and with certainty, as Marlina’s eyes widen. Then he orders Marlina to cook for him before his friends arrive. Over the span of four acts, Marlina ventures across Indonesia, seeking the help of other women to escape from her captors.

The film conveys the helplessness of being a woman in a society that does not understand sexual assault. The first act, for instance, builds tension by letting viewers know that Marlina’s assault is imminent. The camera lingers on Marlina cooking dinner and plotting, while the captors enjoy games and fantasize about her. All the while, the viewer is just as helpless as Marlina. The viewer knows the assault is coming and cannot do anything, and neither can Marlina. She lives in a rural farm, far away from others; she’s poor; and she cannot call the police. Surya forces you to witness Marlina’s experience, rather than cut away from her torment, but manages to do so without sensationalizing her trauma.

Marsha Timothy’s lead performance as Marlina carries the film. Like most western heroes, Marlina rarely speaks. Timothy’s expressions, specifically in her eyes, expertly convey the impact of the crimes committed against Marlina. Timothy’s performance syncs with the film’s score, by Yudhi Arfani and Zeke Khaseli, and these elements combine to highlight Marlina’s fear, planning, and determination. The score also emboldens Surya’s beautiful shots of Marlina traversing roads and fields.

Watching this film in the wake of several sexual assault scandals will inevitably lead viewers to critique tolerance for harmful behavior in our own society. For instance, the police are shocked when Marlina claims to have been raped. “If [your assailant] was old and skinny,” the officer asks, “why did you let him rape you?” At the very least, telling this story from Marlina’s perspective should prevent any viewer from thinking that is a proper question.

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