Berlin Review: Kamila Andini’s ‘Before, Now & Then’

Berlin Review: Kamila Andini’s ‘Before, Now & Then’

February 12, 2022

“Why do women wear their hair long?,” asks the irrepressible Dais of her mother Nana as she sits in front of the mirror, dressing her hair as if there were nothing more important in life. 
To all appearances, life moves slowly in 1960s West Java. Dais wants to have her hair short like Daddy’s, so she doesn’t have to spend so much time in the shower. And why, she goes on, do you wear it in a bun? “A woman must be good at keeping secrets,” replies Nana (Happy Salma) fondly. “What happens in her household is under her bun.”

There is enough unspoken tragedy in Nana’s life to clog a dozen hairbrushes, some of which we have already seen; things here haven’t always moved at the pace of a painting.

The opening scene of Kamila Andini’s Berlin Film Festival competition entry Before, Now & Then (aka Nana) shows two women carrying their goods — including a baby — through the forest on animal tracks to avoid being spotted by “those people.” Nana is being spirited away by her sister, under instructions from their father. The rebels want Nana as a consort for their leader. If not her, then her sister will do.

Even in the jungle, the women whisper. There is nobody around, but their reality is porous; sitting under a tree eating lunch, it is as if Nana can already see a group of zealots closing in on her father with machetes to chop off his head. At another moment, her missing husband appears between the trees. In an immediate sense, they are not there. In another — a sixth sense, maybe a seventh — they are. Whispering is always best.

Nana is still whispering 13 years later, now remarried to a wealthy landowner and with several more children. Her husband Mr Darga (Arswendy Bening Swara) is older than she is. We first see her combing his hair for lice and tenderly washing it. He tells her how beautiful she is and praises her talents managing the farm’s business. She knows that, whatever he says, he betrays her constantly, maybe compulsively.

One of her host of servants brings her a woman’s scarf from his bedroom, saying duplicitously that she thought it must belong to Madam. So the servants know, too. Not that they are especially interested; when we see them below stairs gossiping, it is about politics and the renewed civil war in Indonesia. Shhh, they tell each other as they discuss who in the village is a communist. Not so loud.

Before, Now & Then is a very carefully wrought arthouse film of the kind we used to see a good deal more in festivals, wreathed in poetic melancholy and never less than beautiful; Batara Goempar’s cinematography belongs to another era of soft lamplight, rich shadows and glowing fabrics.

Indonesian politics are unexplained and frustratingly tangential to what we see on screen, even though every aspect of Nana’s life has been ruptured and shaped by the war. Ten years after The Act Of Killing documented the horror of that era, you may expect more history and a good deal more anger.

But this is not Andini’s focus. What is fascinating is the relationship the reserved, profoundly damaged Nana forms with her husband’s latest mistress — a cattle farmer who sells meat in the local market. Like Nana and probably many of his other conquests, Ino (Laura Basuki) slots into the social jenga of provincial Indonesia many rungs below the aging Darga.

Not that she sees herself as a conquest; her goal, she tells Nana, is to be a woman who runs her own business, who doesn’t need a man. She is happiest jumping into waterholes or playing tomboy games with Dais. Nana will never be like her, but she is drawn instinctively to this younger woman who flirts with her husband and refuses, as she says, to be judged for that or anything else. Nana has felt guilty all her life. She thought that was a woman’s lot.

What is clever here is that Andini doesn’t let the story become a tract; she neither preaches nor overreaches the bounds of Nana’s possibilities. Here is a woman who has survived extraordinary hardship by finding a man to support her. In return, she has supported him with dignity, enduring his humiliating infidelities and the carping of local ladies who see his misdemeanors and dismiss her as an insufficiently surrendered wife, no matter how many flowers she arranges or perfect dinners she cooks. Those things hardly matter.

So she isn’t suddenly going to burst forth from that chrysalis of wifehood to become a bovver-booted feminist. She isn’t going to want to go it alone. What she can do, however, is unburden herself of enough of that sense of obligation and blanket guilt she feels to see and then to pursue the kind of life she wants. Within her world, that is a sea change. For western audiences, it may feel more like a ripple on the surface of a very still pond.

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