Affectionately regarded by many critics as the first ‘Satay Western’ due to its thematic and visual ties to the legendary wave of Italian-made Westerns of the 1960’s and 70’s, ultimately this comparison devalues the depth and nuance present in Indonesian director Mouly Surya’s latest film.
This is immediately noticeable in the title character of Marlina. Marsha Timothy’s portrayal of the widow seeking justice has a steely gaze that would make Clint Eastwood proud, but her Marlina has a level of humanity that few to any Spaghetti Western protagonists had. That gaze is not impenetrable, and over the course of the film Timothy is displays fear, sorrow, hope and numerous other emotions that are typically absent in exploitation film protagonists. Her character is not driven by violence, but driven to it under extreme circumstances, and her journey for justice is an illuminating insight into the complexities of her life and of what brought her to this point.
Timothy’s commanding lead is bolstered by Surya’s confident direction and expert pacing. Despite a runtime of approximately ninety-three minutes, Surya affords scenes time to breathe, allowing both her characters to develop and tension to build. This is masterfully done in the film’s opening, where Marlina is accosted at her rural home by a group of thieves who intend to rape her after they have finished robbing her of her livestock. The interiors of her home framed in static wide shots, there is a palpable feeling of dread as Marlina maintains her calm and attempts to find an escape from this terrifying scenario.
Unfortunately the film does have flaws that are difficult to overlook. Marlina being chased by the spectre of a man she killed is at first an interesting visual flourish but contrasts sharply against the otherwise realistic tone of the film and eventually disappears entirely, leading me to question whether it was a necessary inclusion at all. The climax of the film, despite bringing things to a close in a fittingly circular manner, employs convoluted machinations in order to reach that point and lacks the organic flow of the rest of the film.
In fact, the conclusion feels like it was taken from a lesser film, one which utilises genre archetypes as a crutch rather than a springboard, as the rest of Marlina excels at. Its bold arid landscapes, Morricone-inspired music and determined protagonist create the image of a lost Spaghetti Western, but when it’s operating at its peak, Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts is elevated far beyond mere homage.
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