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A man who lost his head for Marlina’s chicken soup. Culinary guide for bandits and cowboys.

Last August when the heat wave hit the city, the life on the streets during the day became still. The radio reporters were announcing the new temperature records and the experts insisted that the elderly people and children must stay home as the most vulnerable ones. As a cautious person, I decided to follow the guidelines and to sit in the shadow at least during the time when the sun is at its peak and to submerge myself in reading Joan Didion’s Californian essays from the 70s. The stories reflected well the atmosphere of the mid-summer having for a background the dry landscape of Sacramento from the early period of the city and the streets filled with the carefree “flower children” wandering around in the search of spiritual experience and some weed. But there was no place else where the temperatures were so high, the climate so arid and the nature as hostile as on the set of Hijos de Katie Elder in Mexico where Didion wrote her essay John Wayne: A Love Song.

None of the actors’ wives wanted to come along to Durango where the western was being filmed. “The very name hallucinates. Man’s country. Out where the West begins. There had been ahuehuete trees in Durango; a waterfall, rattlesnakes. There had been weather, nights so cold that they postponed one or two exteriors until they could shoot inside at Churubusco. ‘It was the girl’, they explained. ‘You couldn’t keep the girl out in cold like that’.” Yet still, Didion appeared on the set to meet John Wayne and his fellows who have together formed the image of a man that the women of the writer’s generation dreamed about: an independent man, a maverick, a bit unshaved but with a tender heart somewhere deep inside. The world presented in the western films was a place where “a man could move free, could make his own code and live by it”. 

In 1965 the shooting of the film was coming to an end so does the era of the western genre. The group of forceful and virile man gathered around the table for the lunch thinking about what’s next to come. On the set, disconnected from the outside world, during the break they continued the performance with the roles that were already played out and with the jokes about women that were told too many times. The sense of solidarity and nostalgy for the past was holding them back from leaving the place and returning to the reality. Some time later, when the film was already finished Didion had once again a chance to meet her idol. Alongside her husband she entered one of the most elegant restaurants in Mexico where John Wayne was having a dinner with his family. As soon as he noticed them he cheered up and ordered some more Pouilly-Fuissé for the guests. It was in vain to look for the good old queso con huevos on the menu.

In the recent years Mouly Surya, an Indonesian film director approached the outdated genre bringing a new perspective to the westerns. Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts is a story about the world where confident man still can make the rules but the pride and arrogance won’t let him go very far. Marlina, a young widow, is living in a modest hut with the walls made of wood and sugarcane paper in the isolated area of an island. A surprising visit of a stranger man, Markus, provokes a justified anxiety in the woman. The unwanted guest makes himself immediately at home and demands a chicken soup for his colleagues who are on their way to steal Marlina’s livestock. He casually mentions that when they arrive she will be raped. A run or a fight are not the realistic options for the woman but despite that she manages to take control over the situation without batting an eye. As a result, decapitated Markus lays in the bedroom, four dead bodies are around the table and the warm dish is still in the pot. 

Marlina collects the severed head and sets off to the police station with a rather sceptical approach towards the male-dominated system and nihilistic policeman who don’t trust the woman on principle. The head hangs in her hand like a grocery bag, a chatty 10 months pregnant girl friend at the bus stop doesn’t seem to be much concerned about this unusual travelling bundle and an old lady displays a real care looking at Marlina’s fatigued hand that holds a machete at the throat of a weary driver. Marlina, now an outlaw, needs to face two more bandits who rather than for the revenge, seek for the missing head so they can perform a proper funeral ceremony that requires mummification of the whole body. In addition, the spectre of Markus joins the pursuit. 

Mouly Surya depicted the helplessness of women in a small misogynist environment where the aggression and rape are on the daily basis, the place of a woman is still believed to be in the kitchen, and the argument of self defence meets with a common disbelief. She presents a dysfunctional system and reveals people who participate in it. The filmmaker discusses serious social problems and even when she illustrate her story with the scenes of violence, she balance them with a solid dose of gallows humour, hypnotic music in the background and multiple references to the local culture and spiritual beliefs. 

by Kasia Kurzyniewska