Forget the overly poetic title, Makbul Mubarak’s terrific Indonesian thriller Autobiography — which premieres in the Venice Film Festival’s Horizons section — is a genuine discovery here, a taut and elegantly staged two-hander that transcends regional politics to make a profound comment on the state of the world today.
American arthouse audiences should be especially receptive to its riveting portrayal of a charismatic candidate running for mayoral office whose populist image masks a very fragile ego and a desire to maintain absolute power at any cost.
The story unfolds from the viewpoint of Rakib (Kevin Ardilova), the young caretaker of an empty mansion owned by Purna (Arswendy Bening Swara), a retired general. Rakib’s family has been in service to Purna’s ancestors for generations, but, with his father in prison and his brother abroad, he’s the last of his clan to be forced into subservience.
When Purna suddenly returns to take part in the local elections, Rakib is, at first, a little put out to have his peace disturbed, not to mention intimidated by the older man, a greying, whippet-like authoritarian figure. But when Purna starts showing him attention — and even a bit of fatherly affection — he warms to him: after all, Purna is a big personality, and his pithy, urbane wisdom is deeply impressive to a country boy.
This, of course, is how authoritarianism casts its spell on the working man, and as Purna’s driver and confidante, Rakib is easily flattered, given special privileges and little favors here and there. Naturally, then, Rakib shares his boss’ concern when someone vandalizes Purna’s campaign. The culprit is a young man whose family’s livelihood is on the line — as a candidate, Purna supports a land grab that will put local farmers out of business — so Rakib pays him a visit. Inspired by Purna’s tactful defusing of a heated incident earlier, Rakib thinks that an apology will suffice and takes him home to make amends. Instead, Purna dishes out a vicious beating, leaving the young man for dead.
This sudden escalation is masterfully handled, leaving Rakib shell-shocked and terrified, a reaction made horribly plausible thanks to Swara’s note-perfect performance. And from here, Autobiography becomes something of a monster movie, as Rakib tries to walk back his allegiance while at the same time knowing what kind of a man Purna really is: a vain, morally and literally corrupt psychopath. The fatherly advances, the looks and touches — in one excruciating scene, Purna walks in on Rakib in the shower — suddenly take on a whole new dimension, while at the same time a moral dilemma presents itself: how do you slay the monster without becoming the monster yourself?
Unusually for a film of its kind, the payoff is as good as its setup, and Mubarak’s rich, impressive film leaves a very strong aftertaste. Power corrupts, but Autobiography is a welcome reminder that this is a lesson that no one — no one — will never really learn.