The film opens with Mexican-style trumpets and church bells. We see a single house in a stark, arid landscape. The house sits on top of a dusty hill, which is surrounded by other dusty hills, and the dirt roads that wind between them. A man rides towards this house on a motorbike. The little bike is sputtering and chortling as it struggles up the hill. Other than this man, the house, and a few animals milling around, there is nothing else for miles.
The man’s name is Markus. He has long greasy hair and tattoos up and down his forearms. He gets off of his bike and stops to touch a headstone out front before walking up to the door —it reads Topan. Markus knocks on the door. A woman answers it. This is Marlina. She is not a murderer...
Though, this is only Act One.
Without a word, Markus walks past Marlina and into her house. He acts like they’re familiar. They’re not. Markus calmly sits on the living room floor and starts plucking a small, stringed instrument. Marlina stands behind the man. She’s nervous and chooses her words carefully. Markus asks her where her husband is. Marlina tells the man that her husband will be back soon. Markus pauses:
“Then whose body is that?”
Marlina doesn’t answer. A body sits in the living room corner, swaddled with blankets. This is Marlina’s late husband. His embalmed corpse remains in the house. (It’s a Sumba tradition to clothe and lay out food for their mummified loved ones until the family can save up enough for a funeral.) Markus knew Marlina’s husband had recently died. That’s why he’s here.
Markus doesn’t look back at Marlina, but keeps speaking, calmly and slowly:
“I’m not alone. Some other men will come. My friends.”
“What do you want?” she asks.
“Your money. Your livestock. And if we have time, sleep with you. All seven of us. We have half an hour until the others arrive. Cook us dinner.”
This is all happens in the first five minutes of Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts. The film is set on the Sumba island of Eastern Indonesia. Marlina lives in a rural community with very traditional views of gender. Marlina’s husband has just died and she still has debt from the funeral of her infant son, Topan. Marlina is in the middle of nowhere with no one to call for help. This group of men mistakes her aloneness for defenselessness—which is almost certainly why they don’t see what comes next.
Marlina obeys Markus’ order and goes on to make his men dinner: chicken soup with poison. She serves them in the living room and they immediately start shoveling it into their mouths. After a few minutes, one starts coughing—then the others. A few seconds later the first one stops eating and keels over. They try to speak but can’t, it’s too late. All they can do is look up at her, incredulous. The men falling over one-by-one in the background, while Marlina sits centrally framed in the foreground with a slight smile. We are stunned.
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Still, there’s one man left who didn’t eat: Markus, who is napping in Marlina’s bedroom. She enters with a bowl for Markus. He’s unaware that the rest of his men are dead outside. However, before he eats, Markus grabs Marlina, throws her on the bed, and starts taking off her clothes. Marlina struggles but he overpowers her. After a few seconds, Marlina pretends to stop fighting and rolls on top of him. From this position, she is able to reach Markus’s machete. She unsheathes it behind her back. And in one clean slice, she decapitates her rapist’s head. Then, Marlina goes to rest, sitting on the ground leaning against her husband’s mummified body.
The romp full of twists and turns that is the meat of this film’s story actually begins the next day when Marlina heads out for the police station. She hitchhikes down a dirt road with the sun blazing overhead. She’s carrying Markus’s severed head, neatly tied up with rope that acts as a sort of suitcase handle. The two surviving cattle thieves are after her. They want Markus’s head back. Beyond that, we’re unsure what they’ll do if they catch her.
This is when Marlina meets Novi who is nine months pregnant, going on ten. She is on the road looking for her husband who thinks that her late delivery is a sign of adultery. An earnest chatterbox, Marlina’s sidekick Novi often serves up comic relief. When a bus driver won’t let them on with a severed head, Marlina pulls out her machete. And so the two women’s adventure begins with spunk—a severed head in Marlina’s lap, pregnant belly in Novi’s—commandeering a bus by holding its driver at blade point.
Marlina and Novi bond with each other and we bond with them. They are in a wild, wild West where anything goes— and especially for their gender. From the opening scene to the last, how their vulnerability as women plays out—or doesn’t—in this remote hinterland keeps the plot thickening.
In this writer’s opinion, the most resonant part of this movie is the bond between Marlina and Novi. Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts is a film that is constantly at odds with itself. It is deadpan. It’s colorful. It’s fast, then it’s slow. It’s about a person grieving. But it’s also a darkly funny movie. Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts is an easy recommendation for fans of Spaghetti Westerns, feminist-revenge movies, or Asian arthouse cinema. There is a humanism at its core that gives it wide appeal. If your interest is piqued (even the tiniest bit) by the sound of a female-driven Western that blends genre and dresses its sentimentality in gore, this film deserves a watch.
RUN TIME: 93 minutes
Directed by: Mouly Surya
Screenplay by: Rama Adi and Mouly Surya
Story by: Garin Nugroho
Cinematography by: Yunus Pasolong
Marsha Timothy as Marlina
Dea Panendra as Novi
Yoga Pratama as Franz
Egy Fedly as Markus
About the Author: Grant Roulier
The final season of Lost broke something in Grant’s 12-year-old brain. No story had ever frustrated him more. Since then—call it love, call it masochism, call it both—all the stories he likes take big, messy swings. Fast forward ten years, Grant started dreaming of similarly frustrating 12-year-olds across America with his writing. Rumor has it the first script he wrote in high school was an anthropomorphic sock sitcom. Mismatched never got made, but if it does Grant hopes it’s after he’s dead. Until they bury him, Grant continues to write scripts, do improv, cook beignets, and have nightmares about that final season of Lost.