‘Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts’ filmmaker talks flipping feminism on its head pre-#MeToo

Director Mouly Surya at the L.A. Times Envelope Live screening of "Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts" at the Montalban.
(Michael Owen Baker / For The Times)

What a difference a year makes. “Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts” first premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2017. The film wasn’t released in the United States until June 2018 — nearly 13 months later. What happened in between? The #MeToo and Time’s Up movements — two noteworthy causes, particularly for a feminist western.

“When we made the film, the #MeToo movement wasn’t there yet. We were editing the film when I read the news, when the news broke about that,” director Mouly Surya said at a recent Envelope Live screening. “I think it’s good that we are talking about it now, but I think it has been a problem that has been there forever and that’s why this kind of story actually took place.”

The drama, which serves as Indonesia’s entry in the foreign language film category at the 2019 Academy Awards, deals with the themes at the heart of both movements head-on. The Western-style film follows a woman named Marlina (Marsha Timothy) who, shortly after the death of her husband, is visited by seven men who come to her house with the intention of robbing and raping her. She poisons them — and even decapitates their leader, Markus — before she must flee. In the subsequent three acts of the film, she encounters several other women, including a young pregnant woman named Novi.


After the screening at the Montalban, Surya took part in a Q&A about the film with Times reporter Jeffrey Fleishman.

“In a way, how these women bonded with each other is really inspiring,” Surya said.

“Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts” director Mouly Surya talks about how the #MeToo movement hadn’t begun when she made the film, but it still touches on the same themes and lessons.

Although Markus is killed in the first act, he comes back to haunt Marlina as a headless apparition playing the same instrument he was seen with at the beginning of the film.

“It was something that I really pushed in the script to visualize, I think, Marlina’s inner turmoil,” Surya said. “It’s probably not guilt. When you [do] something like killing someone, even though it was justified, even though it was self-defense, it left something in you.”

“Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts” director Mouly Surya talks about the appearance and meaning behind including headless Markus in the film.

With the exception of Markus’ ominous return, men play a somewhat small role in the film, which Surya says was on purpose considering the minor roles women have played in traditional western cinema.


“Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts” director Mouly Surya comments on censorship in Indonesia, what she had to edit out of the film and how she flips feminism on its head in her film.

While the film would be noteworthy for its depiction of females in any culture, it’s especially revolutionary in the patriarchal society of Indonesia — something Surya went to great lengths to convey in the film, which takes place on the island of Sumba.

“You probably notice in the film that women are always entering the house and exiting from the kitchen instead of from the front door. When you go to some traditional villages like this you would see that the women would gather at the back of the house; whereas, the men would gather at the front of the house,” she said.

Put another way, “people in this village probably don’t know what feminism is,” she said.

“Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts” director Mouly Surya talks about the elements in her film that help express the resilience of womanhood against the patriarchy on a small island in Indonesia.

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