Opera Jawa (2006)
The Brooklyn Academy of Music is screening all of the New Crowned Hope films beginning this weekend, which include the much lauded Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerastehakul, 2006) and I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (Tsai Ming-liang, 2006). But for my money ($11, to be exact), the greatest of the group is Garin Nugroho's Opera Jawa. The New Crowned Hope festival was a celebration of Mozart's 250th birthday that was held in Vienna, Austria, and curated by Peter Sellars. Part of the festival was a series of grants given to filmmakers worldwide to make films inspired by Mozartian themes.
I've encountered Nugroho once before, when I caught his 2004 feature, Of Love and Eggs at MoMA. A DV-lensed comedy set in a small village near Jakarta, it ran on the idea of community as theater, with the town being entirely studio built, and with young children narrating the action in between narrative strands. Opera Jawa is much grander, but also places its artificiality in the forefront. The film is a Javanese musical, re-enacting a story from the Hindu scripture, the Ramayana. In the original tale, Sita is a princess married to the hero, Rama, a prince and incarnation of Vishnu. Sita is kidnapped by King Ravana, and Rama spends his life trying to rescue her. In Nugroho's re-telling, Sita and Rama are a struggling peasant couple, while Ravana is a wealthy landowner. Nugroho effortlessly incorporates the traditional and the modern, with his Sita (here it's Siti), a dancer who enacts the Ramayana, causing Ravana (here Ludiro) to lust after her and try to steal her away from Rama (here Setio).
All dialogue is sung, and much of the action is performed through dance - and the effortless way in which inner states are manifested through the slightest of movements is often astonishing. In one scene, Ludiro hides underneath Siti's skirt as Setio seduces her onto his bed, warring for position as Siti fends them off and lures them in at the same time, the angles of their bodies lining up so they look as one, an extraordinary visual metaphor for division of Siti's own heart.
Then at one point a troubador character who follows Ludiro, a grossly overweight man with a beautiful voice and mandolin-like instrument, plays a weeping blues ballad in a smoky club, as Ludiro, in mock tuxedo, writhes to the tune of his broken heart (and thwarted lust).
In the end, Nugroho dedicates it to all the victims of natural and man-made disasters in the country, a requiem that honors the country's gorgeous traditional forms of dance and music, while showcasing the phenomenal agility and expressivity of its dancers: so I thank Martinus Moroto, Artika Sari Devi, and Eko Supriyanto, you've made one of the best musicals in recent memory.
Check out Tativlle for a more rigorous (but still enthusiastic!) analysis of the film.