Apparently, the progressive force of hashtags has yet to render the Indonesia island of Sumba fully woke. You can ask the titular widow. When a wiry old gangster informs her of his gang’s plan to rape her and rob her livestock, Marlina is on her own. However, she is more resilient than anyone expects in Mouly Surya’s Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts, which screens during this year’s First Look at the Museum of the Moving Image.
Initially, the cocky Markus arrives alone, but the rest of his gang will be there shortly. He is a particularly sinister piece of work, who makes it clear he expects Marlina to be an accomplice to her own victimization. That even includes cooking chicken soup for her prospective rapists. In retrospect, that demand turns out to be a mistake. Marlina knocks off four of them through poison and she manages to decapitate Markus while he is getting down to his Weinstein business. However, Deanz and Ian were whisking away her chickens and goats, but they naturally feel they need to settle the score when they return to find Marlina’s carnage.
They will track Marlina, who had a notion she should turn over Markus’s head to the nearest useless police station. She is reluctantly traveling with her ultra-pregnant neighbor Novi, who is determined to find her absentee husband (the lout who considers her overdue delivery evidence of infidelity), and an aunt and nephew desperate to deliver the balance of his dowry: two horses. The provincial bus driver isn’t thrilled about taking on these six passengers (horses included), but Marlina’s machete won’t take no for an answer.
Essentially, Surya has crafted an Indonesian western, with sandy vistas worthy of John Ford, albeit executed at a slow art-house pace. There is also more than a touch of the surreal, notably including Markus’s headless ghost, which haunts the otherwise not-too-broken-up Marlina. Surya uses western devices in sly ways, but it does not require much interpretive heavy-lifting to deduce her points about the state of women’s rights on the tradition-bound island. Her husband’s body isn’t even buried yet (that’s his embalmed mummy sitting in the corner) before Markus and his thugs come calling.
Marsha Timothy is awesomely fierce as Marlina, but she is still a vulnerable woman rather than a superhero. Yet, Dea Panendra’s innocently bubbly Novi gets all the real tragedy and tribulations, because the world-weary Marlina is clearly done caring. On the other hand, Egy Fedly and Yoga Pratama are appropriately despicable as the rat-like Markus and the protesting too much Franz.