To hear the review:
“When overcome by their lusts, humans are no more than beasts”
I’m giving Opera Jawa the benefit of the doubt with this rating. Frankly, I can’t understand a large portion of the film. It’s in Indonesian, with English subtitles, and the whole thing is sung. Which means that the English subtitles are in flowery musical-language. Some of the scenes in the film are dream sequences and others are what’s actually happening. It’s difficult to tell which scenes are elaborate metaphors for the story, and which ones are the actual story. Both appear to be approached the same way. Which makes the whole thing very confusing.
The basic premise is a story based on a Hindu epic, The Ramayana, and “The Abduction of Sita”, a portion of that narrative. The story centres around a husband and wife, Setyo and Siti, who live in a village and sell pottery. They are happy, but when the husband is called away on business, the local butcher (who may also be some kind of local warlord or gangster, I’m not sure) decides he wants Siti for himself. At first his advances are rebuffed, but finally Siti gives in. Although the butcher can sleep with her, he can’t win her heart, which belongs to Setyo. When the husband returns, the relationship is not the same, and his jealousy and rage boil over.
At least, this is what I think is going on. It really is tough to tell. There’s a weird group of women who keep popping up to sing what appears to be nonsense, or at least something that has nothing to do with the story. Like, a song about how you can’t whip oxen to make them go faster. There are a whole bunch of woven cones that appear throughout the movie, but I could not figure out, try as I might, the significance of the cones. With all the drawn-out singing, drawn-out pose striking and drawn out bizarre hand gestures and dancing, this movie is far longer than it needs to be in order to tell its story. I think. It’s about two hours long, and the songs take forever.
I think a big problem for me was the songs. They seem to be almost atonal to my Western ear, and it was tough to discern any melody in them. Which meant that the music did not grow on me through the two hour running time. At the same time, the movie remained watchable because of the vivid use of colour and some great filming. One scene in particular has stuck with me, where a bunch of women wearing red unfurl a red carpet over a lush green field. It’s beautiful. The movie is certainly visually interesting, if not terribly impressive. And I had to enjoy watching it, because I sure didn’t understand a lot of it. I’m not sure whether some of the lines were poorly translated for the subtitles, or whether they were just bizarre lines to begin with. For example:
“My sperm sparkles in the heavens!”
Umm…I don’t get it. What does that mean? Does it have anything to do with the story? I really can’t tell. There is a “discussion guide” that comes with the movie, a PDF file that you can read on your computer. I read it because I really wanted to understand this movie more. Here is an excerpt:
“The butcher sings of his power as he dances across the stone floor of his shop. A bloody carcass hangs from the ceiling and molded human heads form a pattern on the floor. Why are there heads on the floor? What are the heads made of? Why?”
Well, these were the exact questions I had. I was hoping the discussion guide would explain some of this stuff to me, rather than just asking the same questions I had asked myself. And I had many questions. Perhaps after a few more viewings I could have come up with a better interpretation of the film, but it’s a tough slog as it is. Opera Jawa comes out Tuesday, March 24th, from First Run Features.