Just around 530 km to the southeast of Bali, one of the wealthiest places in Southeast Asia, sits one of the region’s poorer areas: Sumba, Indonesia. Nearly half of all children do not finish their basic education and the mortality rate for diseases like malaria, cured and perfectly treatable in most of the world, is startling. And, as the pattern of economics dictates, crime follows poverty.
This is the setting for Yohanna, the latest from director Ertanto Robby Soediskam. Sister Yohanna (Laura Basuki) ventures into Sumba with the noble enough task of administering aid to cyclone victims. Life on the island is rough and the Catholic nun learns this the hard way when the lorry she borrowed is stolen. She doesn’t technically owe the man any money since he lent it to her on nothing more than her trustworthiness: “You have my word.” That’s enough to trouble the sister’s conscience, though. Challenged by thieves, police raids, and the prevalence of child exploitation, her faith in both God and humans quivers.
The descent of the titular nun into her Dark Night of the Soul and the spectacular performance by the Indonesian star Laura Basuki rouses the picture’s primary appeal: a monastic (or even reverent) and empathy-based Sturm und Drang. Its religious meanings abstracted, the primary success of Yohanna as a piece of art is not that different from the appeal of Uncut Gems (Safdie Brothers, 2019) with the (pitiful) descent of Howard (Adam Sandler). Both share the same sort of fascination that humans tend to have toward car crashes: despite recognising the hideousness of the random clash, it’s difficult to turn away and not for any insidious motive but simply out of a natural, curious empathy. Howie ruins his life in Uncut Gems and it induces a thrilling sort of stress to watch him do so. In a similar way, as Yohanna forsakes her own religious and moral principles in pursuit of the stolen lorry — mingling in dangerous places she would normally avoid and gambling to earn money — her deterioration almost demands the viewer leans closer to the screen in a shared pain for the forsaken nun.
The desaturated cinematography from Odyssey Flores in Yohanna amplifies the pain suffered by the religious sister. The more lively colours of a saturated world don’t make sense for Soediskam’s Sumba where children are routinely exploited as slave labor, theft and police corruption go hand-in-hand, gambling is a pastime, and justice for sexual assault is a form of fiction.
Editor Diego Marx Dobles brings an unusual ambition to this type of film. Rather than the usually more coherent chronological story, Dobles cuts for the deepest emotional significance rather than convenience. Yohanna’s trip to the island is presented out of order, and flashbacks occur not when needed for the plot but to amplify the emotions the audience is meant to feel. For example, the sister seems to randomly gain a new audience with a young girl (Kirana Grasela) that she didn’t come with; we only see how they meet when it’s important for emotional development rather than seeing the encounter in chronological time. Because most of these flashbacks begin with the sight of the sister in or near the lorry, they are always easy to track as well. (At least, after the first time.) Occasionally the editing style misses, but when it succeeds the non-linear decisions elevate the film.
In my favourite edit, Yohanna, in a time after she admits defeat and gives up on trying to return the lorry, hops onto a large cargo boat to presumably initiate her return to the convent. Dobles then reveals that, in fact, she tried to leave the convent before the runtime of the film ever began (hinted at only once before when a character says she “failed,” past tense, as a nun). The mother superior= sometimes says that traveling the world is needed in order to find the people God calls one to serve. She jumps off the boat. And then, edit: to an earlier time where she is still trying to earn back the money for the lorry, this time by playing in a (male-dominated) community game in which mounting a crazed bareback horse gives a person the right to sell it. The two timelines, superficially in contradiction (to realise selfhood versus to serve others), merge together in a monastic eloquence. The worth of the two are intrinsically wedded. Yohanna is a cinematic realisation of the words of the crying father to Jesus in Mark 9:24: “I believe; help my unbelief!”. The depth of the epiphany only comes through thanks to the magic and ambition of Dobles’ editing.
Yohanna just premiered at the 53rd International Film Festival Rotterdam.