Lance Daly’s Black 47 opened the Dublin Film Festival with a revenge Western filtered through Irish historical grievance, bearded men with rifles chasing eachother across Connault mud and muck. Written and directed by Mouly Surya, Marlina The Murderer in Four Acts offers a kind of feminist counterweight, an Indonesian Western which appropriates classical genre scaffolding for a regionally specific tale of female rage and empowerment.
The whiplash lettering and blaring brass notes from the school of Morricone introduce us to Part 1, “The Robbery” (the others are “The Journey”, “The Confession” and “The Birth”). Marlina (Marsha Timothy) lives in the dry, flat countryside of Sumba, one of the country’s Eastern islands. She’s left defenceless by the death of her husband, whose body sits in ritual posture in the house’s master room, and her home becomes a target for bandits eager to help themselves. Their leader, a scraggly-haired older man named Markus (Egy Fedly), arrives at her door on his motorbike and informs her, matter-of-factly, that he and his men will be taking her livestock and raping her that night. But first, she has to make him dinner.
There is a bitter, near parodic, edge to the politeness and the quasi-formal attitude of the robbers, shaking Marlina’s hand or getting to their feet when she enters, indicative of a culture with little consideration for female experience or sexual dignity. She demurs and cooks them chicken soup, formulating an efficient plan to knock off Markus’ mates. Markus himself, who avoids the soup and forces himself on his host, gets a more bloodily spectacular send-off.
Both victim and murderer, Marlina journeys across the arid landscape with Markus’ head on the end of rope – part trophy, part evidence, part humiliation – to report the whole incident to the police, an odyssey shot in gorgeous, sizzling widescreen photography. She hitches a ride on the local ‘bus’, an improvised hatchback truck whose passengers include the chatty, heavily pregnant Novi (Dea Panendra). But there are other predators on the prowl, with their denim jackets and Samurai-style blades, and it’s only a matter of time until they find their dead friends. And the police? They’re no help, playing ping-pong and victim blaming, lacking the financial and emotional resources to offer Marlina justice of much substance.
The tight, formal framing of Marlina’s house reflects the rigid gendered boundaries of her community and it’s a bracing and luridly entertaining experience watching her assert her independence through violent retribution. But this isn’t a slash-happy hackathon; the action moves with loose, adrift rhythms, the movement towards righteous climax tempered with the melancholy of shrinking options, a heroine whose hand, just as quick with a blade as the boys, has been forced. Timothy wears the immovable expression of a women who can’t believe she has to go through this shit. Conor Smyth
Marlina The Murderer in Four Acts does not have an Irish/UK release date yet.