‘Autobiography’ Review: Sleek, Sinuous Thriller Delves Into Indonesia’s Heart of Darkness

In a gated compound camouflaged by the thick, dripping vegetation of inland Indonesia, all is quiet. A curtain may stir. The hushed commentary on a TV chess match may mutter indistinctly. An insect or two may chirrup. But mostly, this dark-cornered, sinister place, which is being minded by callow young caretaker Rakib (Kevin Ardilova), feels eerily still and expectant, like a spiderweb waiting for the return of its spider. Makbul Mubarak’s “Autobiography” — the Indonesian filmmaker’s impressive debut — gives a “Godfather”-style, power-corrupting-the-naive story the Conradian overtones of “Apocalypse Now.” But with its powerful sense of mood, it emerges from Coppola’s shadow by summoning evocative, specific shadows of its own, out of Indonesia’s troubled, genocidal, terrifying past.

The spider returns. General Purna (Arswendy Bening Swara), recently a towering figure in the military dictatorship, has retired and is coming home to run for Mayor of the region. Rakib, whose family has been in service to the general’s for four generations, is expected to chauffeur him around, wait on him, be an obedient, dog-like companion. At first Purna is offhand with Rakib, impatient. Soon, though, the young man starts to look on the general as a kind of father figure, perhaps for all the ways, in power and influence, he is different from his actual father, who is incarcerated with no apparent hope of release, and for whom Rakib has nothing but disdain. “You look like me when I was your age,” says the general with the approving air of one whose walls are hung with portraits of himself. Rakib starts wearing the military jacket the general provides.

Their evenings are spent in front of the TV or across a chessboard with Purna dispensing fragments of his toxic philosophy to Rakib, who absorbs them like a sponge. Their days are spent driving around to makeshift hustings, putting up posters and giving speeches. The general, clearly regarding the sham-democratic procedures of the upcoming election as beneath him, is shilling a controversial plan to build an energy plant nearby, which will dispossess a lot of the local inhabitants of their meager landholdings. Most of them are too afraid to speak up; the few who do are promptly silenced. Then one of the general’s posters is defaced, and Rakib, enjoying the newfound standing that his proximity to power gives him, and cocky in the belief that the old man may be imperious and demanding but is hardly cruel, finds the culprit and delivers him to the general, like a cat bringing in a bird. There follows, for Rakib, a short, sharp, shocking lesson in the ruthlessness and abject depravity of his employer. 

Although the film features crowd scenes and a full cast of supporting characters, it is essentially a two-hander, and both Swara (recently seen in Kamila Andini’s “Before, Now and Then”) and Ardilova (who played in Andini’s “Yuni” as well as Edwin’s Locarno-winning “Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash”) are remarkably persuasive. Swara’s narrow-eyed Purna, essentially a lean, vain, Indonesian Col. Kurtz, can turn on a dime from malicious and very probably mad, to genial and fatherly. And by the end when all those qualities exist simultaneously, his is a deeply disturbing portrait of absolute power’s ability to corrupt absolutely. Ardilova is equally strong, in a role that requires him to age psychologically without aging physically; in the few months the films traces he goes from surly youngster to cocky sidekick to disillusioned, soul-sick penitent, who knows he’s ventured too far into the mire to ever be able to get out clean. 

It’s a moral murkiness that DP Wojciech Staron interprets visually, in layered images that, especially in interiors, are usually partially impeded in some way. The camera peers at the characters through grilles or furnishings or windows that cast diffuse reflections across the frame. At times this technique becomes a little overbearing especially later, when Rakib’s inner turmoil and the sense of walls-closing-in claustrophobia are better demonstrated by counterpoint, as in a scene of revelry occurring — in line with the immutable laws of recent Southeast Asian arthouse cinema — in a karaoke parlor. Such moments offset Mubarak’s directorial restraint, which, while commendable, can occasionally mute the drama down to a barely audible murmur, where a howl, or a tuneless forced duet on a schmaltzy local pop hit, would be more fitting. 

But in large part, “Autobiography” is an auspicious, atmospheric first feature that knows how to co-opt generic conventions and a richly cinematic style, in order to illuminate some of the the darkest recesses of Indonesia’s recent history. Without laboring the allegory overmuch, Mubarak, working from his own nicely pared-back screenplay, builds up a convincing if despairing vision of the legacy of atrocity, in which the children of the Indonesian dictatorship era can only fully reckon with their nation’s violent past by taking on some of its attributes themselves, at significant cost to their souls. As such, the chess games that Purna, the representative of the venal old guard, plays with Rakib, standing in for the new generation, are an imperfect metaphor, considering the desperately unfair terms of engagement that Indonesia’s youth have inherited. But then, is there a game where one side wrote the rules, owns the board and controls all the pieces, while the other can only field one trembling pawn?

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