By Matthew Sorrento.
Marlina begins with a scenario all too familiar: the title character, recently widowed, is now an object of desire (her body and fortune) for local men. One immediately arrives to her home as if ready to take ownership. Accusing her of sleeping around since her husband’s death, he exploits a misogynistic framework. In a groundwork from Maxine Hong Kingston and other writers, the film shows how such vulnerability is widespread and an immediate source of despair and menace for women like Marlina. That this 2017 Indonesian film frames her actions and quest as a western revenge narrative brings to mind Neil Campbell’s theory of the “post-Western”: in a milieu hyper-aware of the genre’s motifs, recent culture repurposes them in the “afterlife of the classic Western’s afterlife.” (1) In a video interview accompanying the DVD from Icarus Films, the filmmaker, Mouly Surya, speaks of her interest in the “antiwestern” (as she understands Jarmusch’s Dead Man, 1994) as motivation behind the film, though, like Thomas Sobchack’s theory of the “antigenre film” (2), this concept is more problematic than helpful. Can we continue critical dialogue on genre if a film is anti? Isn’t antithetical, then, as well?
As various national cinemas continue to develop and the genre moves to new locales, it’s rewarding to see local artists, like Surya, and viewers aware of the motifs and keen on revision. But the wasteland of Marlina’s home suggests that she occupies something different than the post-Western’s recreation of the genre (even on a global scale). In actual isolation, she feels the threat of the barren environment and its villainy, very far from a scenario when civilization recreates the Western genre. Since Surya is from urban area of Indonesia, she scouted the layout of Sumba Island, and the landscape reminded her of the genre (specifically, according to her interview, Once Upon a Time in the West, along with Dead Man). The narrative, shaped by locale, thus takes on a mythical dimension closer to the traditional style, to underscore one woman’s psychology and motivation. We’re urged to think of Marlina, who acts, then departs on a journey, and her ordeal as reflecting the effects of masculinist civilization’s worst.
Discussing the film’s first act would spoil too much. It’s enough to know that the film reflects Tommy Lee Jones and Guillermo Arriaga’s Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005, loosely based on a true story) with attention to gender instead of contemporary border politics (the current Right Wing in the US should carefully consider both films!). The journey in the 2005 film is for Hank Perkins’ (Jones) vindication for his deceased friend, while Marlina embarks for raw survival. She’s soon abandoned by a bus, which puts her on a donkey to reflect the generic motif of the lone Western wanderer. The image recalls her violators on motorbikes earlier in the film, on a more mobile means for solitary travel. Eventually Marlina reaches the police, and while an officer attends to her, he offers little help, due to lack of funds. The journey (the title of “Chapter 2,” though the narrative really consists of one to the end) gathers weight as Marlina encounters Novi, a pregnant, neglected young woman on her own quest. The double of Marlina, Novi is an resilient earth mother in contrast to Marlina’s association violent, worthy vengeance. The film stands out in its treatment an active female protagonist not immediately supplanting male power, but slowly struggling to assume it.
1) Campbell, Neil (2011), “Post-Western Cinema,” in A Companion to the Literature and Culture of the American West, ed. Nicolas S. Witschi (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell): 409-424.
2) Sobchak, Thomas (1975, 2003), “Film Genre: the Classical Experience,” in Film Genre Reader III, Barry Keith Grant (Austin: University of Texas Press): 112. Originally published in Literature/Film Quarterly 3.3 (Summer 1975): 196-204.
Matthew Sorrento is Co-Editor of Film International and teaches film studies at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey. He has forthcoming book chapters on The Purge series and Bogdanovich’s Targets, the latter to appear in his collection, David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)interpretation, co-edited with David Ryan, forthcoming from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.