You could call it long conception, short birth. Garin Nugroho imagined Opera Jawa five years ago, but shot it in just two weeks. Production companies weren’t interested in the idea of a modern day opera based on Hindu holy text the Ramayana and set to the sound of gamelan music. But then Peter Sellars – the man behind the staging of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro in the Trump Tower – decided to commission the film for the New Crowned Hope Festival. The festival, funded by the city of Vienna and curated by Sellars, commemorates the 250th Birthday of Mozart, who himself struggled to get his revolutionary work commissioned.
The intricate planning that Nugroho invested in his idea over those five years is clear in the final product, which is packed with layer upon layer of art installations, folk-inspired dance and constant movement. A series of musical vignettes tell the story of the destructive love triangle between married couple Setio and Siti, and the town bully Ludiro. The couple meet playing the leads in popular Hindu tale ‘The Abduction of Sinta’, but the artistic glamour of their single lives turns into conjugal drudgery after the wedding.
When their pottery business falls to pieces, in steps Ludiro, a long-haired Lothario who woos Siti with his proud masculinity and material wealth. It is a tough decision for Siti; the contrast between the Spartan marital home and Ludiro’s string of sumptuous lairs is clear to see. As Siti entertains the idea of being with him she becomes the focus of some of the most haunting sequences in the film.
But the personal becomes political when Setio’s patience snaps and he instigates a community offensive on Ludiro, whose tyrannical rule over neighbouring businesses – orchestrated by a mob of crab-like Mafiosi – has wreaked havoc on the hearts, minds and purses of the town.
Nugroho broadens the political scope even further by describing the film as a requiem for those who have died through natural and man-made disasters, suggesting that the love triangle of the film symbolises real-life power struggles over land for reasons of religion, natural disaster and greed. The point is made well: like the land itself, Siti rarely crafts her own destiny but allows herself to be the vessel of other men’s desires.
Both she and Setio dance stylised set pieces where their eerie movements convey their deepest feelings. But power-hungry Ludiro – played by one of Madonna’s former dancers – actively teases and taunts in his dance scenes. When first introduced, he appears from behind an animal carcass in his butcher shop to turn his all-encompassing megalomania into a violent, swiping dance routine. He later steps out a strutting flamenco-style dance atop the bar of a smoke-filled jazz joint, which reveals his dangerous allure and the depth of his desire.
In this way, Nugroho proves that a dance, like a picture, can tell a thousand words. In fact, words are where the film fails. For viewers not fluent in the Javan tongue – even those with a steely acceptance of subtitles – the impact of reading the opera lyrics pales in comparison with the sheer joy of seeing the saturated colours of Ludiro’s candle-lit oasis or the graceful coordination of the Javan classical dancers.
The idea of a feature-length gamelan opera is a hard one to accept, especially when it is politically charged and crammed with art installations. But the stunning beauty of the film means Nugroho gets away with it.