Mouly Surya’s film “Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts” may be set on an island in Indonesia, but she imbues the film with touches from Spaghetti Westerns.
In fact, the film hems so closely to the Western genre, from explicit nods to Ennio Morricone’s scores from Sergio Leone’s films, to vast shots of open desert and prairies and the title character Marlina emerging on the wavy horizon on horseback, Surya said she hopes Clint Eastwood might see her film and enjoy it.
“I would love to be there to see that,” Surya told TheWrap’s Beatrice Verhoeven Thursday as part of TheWrap’s Awards and Foreign Screening Series at the Landmark Theatres in Los Angeles. “Little by little it takes the shape of this Indonesian feminist Western, even if that doesn’t make sense because we’re not in the West.”
“Marlina the Murderer” tells the story of a woman living on the Indonesian island Sumba. Desperate for money and a way to bury her mother-in-law, Marlina invites a stranger named Markus into her home to help. But he reveals that he and six other men in his crew plan to not only take all her livestock, but also rape her. When Markus starts to take advantage of her, she manages to behead him with a machete and poison the rest.
But the film’s tone changes drastically between each of the four acts. It begins as something of a bloody, Tarantino-esque revenge fantasy, only to introduce some oddball comedy when Marlina decides to wrap her rapist’s head in a cloth and carry it with her to a police station in town. Amazingly, it’s something that doesn’t seem to faze her best friend or some of her neighbors. And by the film’s final act, Surya wanted to give the film an “operatic” feel that matches some of the finest Spaghetti Westerns.
“When I saw pictures of it for the first time, there was a picture of the savanna, and there’s horses. This is like Texas. It’s really Marlboro country,” Surya said. “You just need a cowboy in the middle of the picture.”
Surya explained that on an island like Sumba in Indonesia, rapes, murders and other crimes frequently go unreported, and the police, as in the film, are generally unhelpful and woefully under-equipped. As a result, people in these small, rural communities who live hours away from the nearest town or even restaurant (Surya said she found just four establishments while traveling and researching the island) often take matters into their own hands, with men carrying machetes wherever they go and women traveling with bags of food on long journeys. Amazingly, the original story was based on a man who witnessed a woman carrying a severed head with her through a marketplace.
“The social stigma in Indonesia is even worse. We are decades behind in terms of speaking up about this kind of crime,” Surya said. “If you’re on this island, you have to keep a weapon somewhere. It’s the Wild Wild East.”
All of the above fit the tone she was going for with “Marlina the Murderer,” making it into a feminist Spaghetti Western with a specifically Indonesian perspective. Surya was asked about why Marlina would keep poisonous berries hidden away in her vanity, and she explained it spoke to the film’s themes of women taking control.
“It’s saying something about having your weapon underneath your beauty in a way,” Surya said. “Women helping each other and supporting each other, that’s what I really wanted to convey because women supporting each other is the most beautiful relationship you can have.”
“Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts” is Indonesia’s entry into the Foreign Language Oscar race. It made its premiere as part of the 2017 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for the Queer Palme. The film opened in New York on June 22 this year.