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A once stylish yet reserved, opulent yet modest, Before Now & Then creates a reflective portrait of a country in turmoil through the romantic experiences of one women. More of a contemplative character portrait than a traditional romance, it offers rewards in its resplendent filmmaking while smartly examining the nuances of the feminine experience.
Nana (Happy Salma) has a comfortable life. She lives on a large Dutch colonial estate alongside her husband Mr Darga (Arswendy Bening Swara) and children, hosting gatherings of women where they listen to music, eat food and talk about family. But her dreams suggest otherwise, reminding Nana of her violent past escaping the coups and genocides that characterised 60s Indonesia. Having lost her first husband and child in the coup, she remembers the war in vivid detail, unable to move forward in a country that’s on the cusp of rapid change.
The role of women in this patriarchal society seems yet to be defined. While men are free to go and do as they want, as seen through Mr Darga’s dalliances with other women, Nana gathers the small pleasures while she can, like smoking a cigarette on the terrace or playing with her children. At the meat market she meets the mysterious Ino (Laura Basuki) — with a kind smile, she simply radiates empathy, allowing Nana to figure out how to navigate this new reality.
It’s not only Nana who seems stuck between past and present; the film itself has little concern with traditional narratives, instead giving us a full sense of who Nana is. A lot of the time, we simply watch her thinking, captured against the gorgeousness of her house and almost always impeccably dressed. Her daughter asks her why women’s hair has be kept up: the answer is “to keep secrets”, the likes of which are slowly revealed to us piecemeal throughout this carefully crafted story.
A great sense of romanticism and unspoken longing comes through the music, mixing contemporary 60s songs, traditional and a lush score that moves between waltzes and playful string movements. The music, bringing to mind In The Mood for Love (Wong Kar Wai, 2000), is almost constant throughout the film, almost acting against the slowness and consideration of the characters themselves. Credit must go to Salma herself, able to command the camera and allow us to see her perspective even when it seems like she’s not doing much at all.
It’s likely that many of the cultural and feminine nuances of the story eluded me — it’s not particularly illuminating for anyone learning about mid-twentieth century Indonesian history for the first time — yet once I settled into its rhythms, I found it to be a fine, absorbing aesthetic experience, even if I was never fully enraptured by its style.
Before, Now & Then plays in Competition at the 72nd Berlin Film Festival, running from February 10th to 20th.