Opera Jawa

Opera Jawa


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Since I saw this film, the question I have been asked most often is whether or not it features any of the smaller residents of Tatooine. Sorry to disappoint you, Star Wars fans, but that's not the case. Nevertheless, if you've a genuine interest in unusual cultures and you like stories about rebel uprisings and love triangles whose heroes have some nifty moves, Opera Jawa might be for you. It's certainly not the sort of film most people choose to see on a Saturday night, but that's not to say that they wouldn't enjoy it if they let themselves.

Opera Jawa is, for the most part, an updated version of the story of Rama and Sita, though with a little more sympathy for the Devil and with an ending which turns decidedly Shakespearean. Note that when I say 'updated', I'm talking about modern rural Indonesia, still not quite the world most viewers will be used to.

Copy picture

The problems of its protagonists, however, are universal. Setio is deeply in love with his wife, Sinta, but they have fallen on hard times and he is struggling to support her; beautiful as she is, he is sure she will seek solace elsewhere, and his jealousy itself becomes a destructive force in their relationship. Sinta, in turn, is devoted to her husband, but finds herself drifting away from him as she struggles to deal with the world on her own terms.

Meanwhile, Ludiro is a rich businessman who wields power over everyone in the village. He could simply take Sinta if he wanted to, but her virtue confounds him, and he finds himself hopelessly struggling to win her heart. A host of other, minor characters surround these three and share in their complicated dance, which takes place against the background of a village in turmoil, its oppressed poor rising up to demand their rights in a militant fashion which has everybody questioning their proper moral course. It's a timeless story, beautifully told through the medium of traditional song and dance.

Though elegantly framed and shot in lavish colour, Opera Jawa is a simple production put together by the villagers who have preserved this story - in various versions - for countless generations. The contrast between their humble surroundings and the sharp, sophisticated photography is at times reminiscent of the work of Akira Kurosawa. Although many Westerners will find the style of the film off-putting, it's an impressive effort at translating older traditions to the big screen.

The dance set pieces are stunning to look at. The set dressing, though simple, has a powerful effect. Wax and paper substitutes for human corpses are somehow more disturbing to look at than the real thing. Masks and crude costuming using blankets and veils convey a haunting sense of otherworldliness. And if you thought the famous potter's wheel scene in Ghost was sexy, just wait until you get a load of this.

Opera Jawa will not be to everyone's tastes, but it's a truly unusual and imposing piece of cinema which everyone with an interest in the potential of the medium should make an effort to see. You may not notice it exerting its grip on you as you watch, but when it ends you'll really feel its impact.

Reviewed on: 06 Sep 2007
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A traditional Indonesian tale of love and tragedy recounted through the medium of dance.
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Director: Garin Nugroho

Writer: Aramantono, Garin Nugroho

Starring: Martinus Miroto, Artika Sari Devi, Eko Supriyanto, Retno Maruti, Jecko Siompo Pui, Slamet Gundono

Year: 2006

Runtime: 120 minutes

Country: Indonesia


CFF 2007

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