Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts: rape-revenge, motherhood and ravishing beauty

Cannes 2017: If you only see one feminist Indonesian Spaghetti Western this year, this should be it

Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts
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Director: Mouly Surya
Cert: Club
Genre: Western
Starring: Marsha Timothy, Egi Fedly, Yoga Pratama, Dea Panendra
Running Time: 0 hr 0 mins

Beware strangers on motorbikes. And steer clear of the chicken soup. In a far-flung corner of Indonesia, Marlina (Marsha Timothy), a young widow, receives an unwelcome guest. Markus (Egi Fedly), a middle-aged tattooed thug, rides up to her farmstead to inform the titular heroine that he and his gruesome goons will be taking all of her livestock and taking turns to rape her this evening. He’s calling half an hour early so that she can get a headstart on dinner. Chicken soup would be nice.

Marlina heads toward the kitchen. Her deadened composure betrays nothing of the murderous mayhem she’s about to unleash. Chicken soup, it is, with a machete for afters.

As billed in the title, Marlina’s adventures unfold over four acts: The Robbery, The Journey, The Confession, and The Birth. These chapters bring her into contact with unhelpful ping-pong playing cops, an elderly woman determined to marry off her nephew, and – rather startlingly – the headless ghost of one of Marlina’s victims.

It's not every day that one happens upon a feminist Indonesian Spaghetti Western, especially one that brazenly blares out the mariachi horns from the get-go. Even against a backdrop of rape-revenge, motherhood dominates fourth film from Mouly Surya (What They Don't Talk About When They Talk About Love): Marlina has lost a son, her chatty chum Novi (Dea Panendra) is nearly 10 months pregnant, and even one of the evil thugs takes time to sing the praises of his late mummy's culinary skills.

Working from a screenplay she co-wrote with Rama Adi, Surya and the unfailingly deadpan Marsha Timothy wring jet-black humour from the most awful, violent scenarios. These dark, twisted presentations culminate in payback that was met with (intentional) laughter and loud cheers on the Croisette (a place where booing is practically a sport).

Even more perversely, Marlina the Murderer is one of the most ravishingly beautiful films at Cannes. Cinematographer Yunos Pasolang reaches for wide lenses to shoot incredible, unique and (more contrariness) sunny horizons with a scope that recalls the classic Hollywood tableaux of James Wong Howe and Winton Hoch.

Burnt orange moons disappear over the skyline: unassuming interiors are blasted by shards of light. An amazing score by Zeke Khaseli and Yudhi Arfani is Ennio Morricone on an Asian holiday. It requires the occasional buzzing of mobile phones to remind us that we’re definitely not in Kansas anymore.

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic