Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Dec 10, 2023 11:50 am 
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MAKBUL MUBARAK: AUTOBIOGRAPHY (2022) - Indonesia's Best International Foreign Feature Oscar entry for 2024 - watch for it!


In the belly of the beast

Haunting, scary, and meticulous, Autobiography is a superb thriller from Indonesia about moral and political corruption. It's a hypnotic coming of age tale, slow and precise but breathtaking. In a way it is metaphorical, but it's tactile and specific. This debut feature marks first time director Makbul Mubarak as one to watch with interest. It's about - what? - the grooming of a servant, a right hand man, a successor, an assassin, an ally, an enemy? The ambiguity is hypnotic and fascinating in a story that's as much about corrupt and corrupting power all over today's world as it is specifically about the evil legacy of Indonesia's Suharto.

At the outset the meek, quiet young Rakib, aka "Kib" (Kevin Ardilova) is caretaking a large mansion. A shy fellow, he's happy here, and it annoys him when Purna (Arswendy Bening Swara), the owner, arrives to occupy it. But it's not only his; it's ancestral. Kib's family has served his for generations, and with the boy's father in prison and his brother abroad, he's he only one left to play this subservient role. A general who's just retired from the military, Purna is now turning to politics and running for local mayor. As he moves in on the mansion, his influence infiltrating the whole region, he takes over Kib as well. The two are, from now on, constantly together.

The action feels slow at first. Mubarak is careful to weave in a foundation of atmosphere, which is steamy and dark, embracing and cozy in a creepy way. It's not always good to notice technical details like the cinematography of a film right away, but the work of dp Wojciech Staroń has a dark, tactile beauty one can't help savoring from early on. As one also savors the baroque, complex sets of the looming house and crowded street scenes, the sparing, quietly haunting score and the rich, subtly invasive sound design. And all the while one is watching Pema and Kib as they circle around each other. It wouldn't work unless both actors were compulsively watchable. But they are.

Purna is mounting a political campaign but also has a hydroelectric project, and the latter will displace many local citizens' businesses. Going to meetings and canvassing the area, Purna uses Kib as butler, chauffeur, cook, companion, surrogate son - he has never had a son of his own, only three daughters. He is intimate with Kib, uncomfortably so, with too many touches and moments of leaving hand on shoulder or back just a little too long - and in one unforgettably uncomfortable scene, walking in and manually showering Kib, like a child: he also behaves as if he owns the young man.

In fact he does not know the difference between love, ownership, and exploitation. And yet he flatters the young man with the intimacy he offers, playing chess with him and even cooking for him on occasion. Every gesture is both meaningful and ambiguous, kind and potentially hurtful. Mubarak's control in all this is breathtaking.

Once things are set up, the cut to the chase is rapid. When Kib is driving Purna and backs into a small mosque, Purna has him get out and apologize to complaining locals. This works well enough with the old man's menacing presence: everybody is afraid of him and knows who he is. "Sorry" is "a little word that turns rage into gentleness," says Purna, to explain. Purna gets Kib to track Agus (Yusuf Mahardika), a young man much like himself, who has vandalized one of his campaign posters, and lure him to the mansion to apologize. Kip thinks this will be like the scene at the mosque, but Purna shuts Kib out and beats Agus brutally, leaving him for dead. Agus, of course, was one whose family business will be destroyed by Purna's corrupt hydroelectric project.

By now we are on the edge of our seats, have been so for a while. Every moment is more fraught and scary than the last. Kib is shocked and terrified and says he will resign. But he does not, cannot. His father, in prison, appears spectrally to advise him to stay where he is and enjoy it. That over-intimate shower takes place after the tragedy of Agus. As things have progressed, Kib has already changed rapidly. Being with Purna all the time, he has, stealthily, become him. When Purna gives him a lesson with a precision rifle, Kib shows natural skill. He beams whenever praised by Purna, smokes cigarettes ostentatiously in his presence. and has begun to walk with a swagger.

After the horrific beating, Kip continues to cooperate, but draws inward. That is, the actor Kevin Ardilova does so for us. Through the course of the film he takes us through many subtle changes which we watch for with rapt attention - as we do for the older actor Arswendy Bening Swara's unnerving alternations of charm and menace. When we know what a monster Purna truly is, it's wonderfully creepy to see him playing the jolly family man, or the benevolent leader. Now we know tings are different, and the tension and suspense, building all along, grow greater than ever.

We'll leave things here. The rest, with the skillfully surreal finale, is too good to spoil.

A stunning first film. Enormous thought, wisdom and observation of power at the intimate and collective levels have gone into this. Mubarak has put Indonesian cinema on the map.

Autobiography, 115 mins., debuted at Venice in the Orizonti and Parallel sections, winning the FIPRESCI prize; the film went on to show at Toronto, Hamburg, Busan, and many other festivals, including London, Tokyo, Taipei, and New Directors/New Films in New York, receiving nominations and prizes along the way. Admiring reviews came at the outset from, among others, Jessica Kiang inI]Variety[/I] (" Sleek, Sinuous Thriller Delves Into Indonesia’s Heart of Darkness"), Allan Hunter in ScreenDaily, Damon Wise in Deadline ("A taut and elegantly staged two-hander that transcends regional politics to make a profound comment on the state of the world today"). Autobiography is Indonesia's 2024 Official Best Foreign Oscar Entry.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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