Gateway | Dragons & Tigers
Although Indonesia is a predominantly Muslim country, most of Riri Riza’s previous films have sidestepped dealing with the specificities of life for observant Muslims. He’s preferred to focus on social and political issues, or sexual and psychological issues. This adaptation of Alberthiene Endah’s novel Athirah is no different, in that it centres on questions of emotional and moral strength and is set very specifically in a period of social and economic turbulence. But the story confronts one fact of traditional Muslim life very squarely: polygamy.
Puang Aji (Arman Dewarti) establishes a thriving trading company in Makassar in the late 1950s and builds up a family with his wife Athirah (Cut Mini). But "business" takes him away from home more and more often, and Athirah—known to everyone as Emma’ (“Mother”)—eventually discovers that her husband is about to take a second wife in Jakarta. The impact is devastating, not only on Athirah but also on their eldest son Ucu (Christoffer Nelwan), who’s busy negotiating puberty. They’re not able to discuss their feelings openly, and much is repressed. Riri Riza’s film, infused with his signature lyrical realism, is wise and humane as it deals with Athirah’s stoic efforts to keep herself and her family together. The glimpses of traditional food and fabrics throughout are quite magical.
— Tony Rayns