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Non-Review Review: Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2018.

Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts is a tough film to classify.

Visually and narratively, Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts feels very much like a western. Writer and director Mouly Surya crafts a story that is recognisable as a classic western tale. The eponymous lead character lies alone in a remote part of Sumba, managing a farm following the death of her husband. When bandits arrive to raid the property, Marlina finds herself forced to embark on a journey across the region in search of justice – or maybe just even peace. Along the way, there is violence, retribution and reconciliation.

Director Mouly Surya and cinematographer Yunus Pasolang tell the story using the visual language of the western. The film features any number of striking and beautiful compositions, the camera taking in the sparse beauty of the Indonesian countryside in rich browns and yellows, the deep blue of the ocean occasionally visible in the distance or the background. Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts even includes sequences of its protagonist riding on horseback, hoping to deliver a bounty to the forces of justice in a seemingly lawless land.

However, these trappings serve to provide a framework for a much more compelling and fascinating character study. Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts is a quiet and introspective film, one that finds a strange warmth in the quiet resolve of its central character.

A lot of the power in Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts comes from the space that the film affords to the beats within its relatively straightforward narrative. Indeed, given that Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts borrows so much of the language of the western, the most appropriate point of comparison is perhaps the work of Quentin Tarantino; not in terms of violence or brutality, but in terms of structure and storytelling. Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts is effectively a sequence of extended scenes, familiar story beats extended and explored with considerable nuance.

Takes advantage of the familiar narrative template to allow its characters room to breath. This is perhaps most notable in the first of the four titular acts, which depicts the brutality and violence that sets the rest of the plot in motion. In a more typical film, this sequence would be little more than an economical exercise in establishing the stakes, the audience understanding the threat that the bandits pose and the necessary response to it. Instead, Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts chooses to unpack the sequence and to delve into the various forces at play within it.

It would probably be possible to summarise the plot of Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts in four sentences, each sentence encapsulating one of the four approximately-twenty-minute-long segments. However, such a summary would be reductive, stripping a lot of the nuance and the humanity from the film. Mouly Surya finds a lot of humanity and warmth in these smaller moments, in paying attention to the smaller details of how people interact, even in smaller circumstances.

Amid the violence and retribution, Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts develops its supporting cast in a way that makes the world feel rich and inhabited. As Marlina navigates her own complicated situation, she crosses paths with a variety of other figures who seem to be on their own journey. Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts finds something unique and human in most of its characters, whether in Markus’ idle strumming of the string instrument that he carries with him or in the mother dragging two horses to town in order to complete a dowry.

Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts benefits greatly from a strong central performance from Marsha Timothy, who brings the eponymous character to life. Timothy imbues the character with a steely resolve while providing her with a rich internal life. The film suggests repeatedly that Marlina carries her dead around with her, in a literal and metaphorical manner; in the child that she lost, in the mummified remains of her husband that she keeps in the house, in the severed head that she winds up carrying on her journey.

The film’s stylistic debt to the western genre exists as part of this larger character arcs. The wonderful landscape shots and wide angles allow the film to take in much of the beautiful countryside, but they also serve to emphasise the remove at which Marlina has placed herself. Even scenes involving multiple characters are frequently framed so as to make them seem isolated and lone, recalling some social or psychological variation on the familiar western movie stand-off. Timothy’s performance plays into this aesthetic, suggesting incredible strength and resolve beneath a stoic exterior.

Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts is a beautiful and lyrical film, a slow and contemplative meditation on the notion of peace and justice in a stark land.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

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