The arrival of one man can make a rural town feel smaller than it should.
Retired general Purna returns to his family home to start his mayoral election campaign. Born from a rich, renowned family, he is beloved by the townsfolk & his fellow peers in the military. As played by Arswendy Bening Swara, it’s easy to see why: Purna exudes quiet confidence and unforced charisma while exerting his authority over any situation. What earns him the community’s approval in the upcoming election is his support for the construction of a hydroelectric power plant to provide electricity for the whole town.
But for someone like Purna, respect comes with fear. There are people who oppose his plans because it requires claiming land from people who rely on farming for their livelihood, as their ancestors did generations ago. But that would mean speaking up against a retired ranked military officer. Just like the Philippines, Indonesia went through a bloody military dictatorship, whose architects, enforcers, and beneficiaries were barely prosecuted after its demise. They still hold onto so much power & influence that the route to a government position is a straight line. We all know what he is capable of.
And Purna knows it too. Swara can turn the same qualities Purna has into a threatening force with the tiniest of gestures & intonation. There’s no arrogance to him. He is suave & calm. He is always in control. He can be sweet and kind, but the implication is obvious: Follow him or else.
This duality is felt directly by Rakib, the sole housekeeper of Purna’s family home. His family worked for Purna’s family for generations. There are no clear paths for him in his home country. The only reason he is working there is that his father is in prison for obstructing the construction of the hydroelectric power plant that will rob them of their land. This begrudging acceptance is embodied in Kevin Ardilova’s performance as Rakib, who carries an air of weariness with him.
But he also imbues Rakib with innocence and a careful eagerness to serve Purna’s orders. This may be why Purna treats him kindly despite his father’s transgressions, like a son he never had. He becomes his right-hand man during his campaign, where he is able to reap the benefits of being a part of his inner circle. At one point, Purna saves his life through diplomacy. Purna’s reputation may have more to do to calm them down, but he has seen his capacity for grace & understanding. He may not be so bad after all.
That quickly dissipates when an investigation regarding a vandal who destroyed one of Purna’s tarpaulins goes awry. Rakib realizes he is trapped with a monster who has the power to do anything he wants. Not that it wasn’t the case before: we always follow him in tight, handheld shots often peeking through the environment or looking at him through reflections. Watching him navigate a life limited by the systems and circumstances feels so intimate that it feels like we’re eavesdropping on him.
Those same systems and circumstances have been given human form with the arrival of Purna, and his relationship with Rakib ratchets up the feeling of paranoia and terror all over the movie. Purna is often framed in medium shots that emphasize his hold on the people around him. Yet at his most terrifying, he is either enveloping the likes of Rakib throughout the frame or his voice can be heard offscreen while the camera focuses on the faces of those on the receiving end, barely hiding the fear in their eyes. This is apparent with Rakib, as Ardileva becomes quieter and more subdued yet his anxiety and helplessness are just as palpable. He has no one to talk to, yet he must scream.
And even with Purna’s absence, his presence can be felt everywhere. Rakib can’t trust anyone, nor can he trust the systems around him that enabled Purna to begin with. At its best, Autobiography reflects the psychological toll of living in an authoritarian society by overwhelming the audience with an oppressive dread to the point of suffocation.
But where it struggles is managing that tension. The possibility of tragedy is built into a narrative about an impoverished servant trying to wrest control away from his powerful master, reflecting the current sociopolitical realities of Indonesia brought by the darkest parts of its history. And when you live a life under constant threat and subjugation as Rakib does, you become so accustomed to it that it numbs you. Navigating around these issues requires careful tweaking and ratcheting of tension to avoid going stale. However, the film’s middle act fails to do this, as it meanders by repeating the same emotional beats & plot points. Whatever tension it built up so flawlessly deflates into tedium. The final act is a huge improvement since the plot stops stalling to move toward its inevitable endgame. Where the story goes is a bit predictable, but having a direction to head to with a tighter pacing than before helps regain the tension it lost.
At one point, Purna claims that hierarchies don’t exist anymore. He says that with a slight grin to Rakib’s father while visiting him in prison. It’s clear that he knows it’s bullshit. The man behind bars definitely knows it. Yet no one is willing to speak the truth. Autobiography concerns itself with the unspoken contract authoritarians forcibly bind to the oppressed in order to hold their dominance. The suggestion of violence is more powerful than the act itself, and it is how they force others to accept their version of the truth. The ending does introduce a fascinating wrinkle, as the paths for truth and mythmaking open up, but not without dire consequences. Either way, his grip on the town’s collective consciousness only tightens. His story becomes one with the town he calls home, another symptom of a nation still bleeding from the wounds of the past.