Murina, a captivating new coming-of-age drama

Cliff Curtis and Gracija Filipovic Murina.
Photo: Antitalent

Coming-of-age films set in seaside locations are now practically a subgenre of their own, but rarely are they as intoxicatingly present as Murina. Croatian director Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović’s debut film (which won the Camera d’Or for Best First Feature at Cannes last year) plunges us into the mind of a teenager struggling to free himself from his domineering father, and he does this by immersing us in the immediate physical world that surrounds it. Among other things, it is a film about the waves lapping on the shore, the roar of boat engines, how the rocks and cliffs of the Dalmatian coast speak with the irrepressible restlessness of youth.

When we first meet Julija (Gracija Filipović), she and her father Ante (Leon Lučev) are spearfishing for moray eels (“murina”). Brash, impatient Ante doesn’t mind shouting orders and shoving his daughter out of the way when he thinks she’s doing something wrong. His aggression can manifest as exuberance or passion, and one can see how Ante can be charming to outsiders in small doses. But for his family, living with him is more of a reign of terror. Julija’s compliant, exhausted mother Nela (Danica Curcic) desperately looks forward to the few moments when Ante might be in a good mood.

The daughter is the one who grows up here, but there is also something fundamentally childlike about the father. Played by veteran Croatian actor Lučev, Ante has nervous, hungry eyes and a predatory grimace. He’s a patriarch who rules over nothing, substituting anger for power – effectively making him a pathetic, oversized infant. This man sees everything as a gamble: a memory from his daughter that her boat was once wrecked when he tried to steer it between two large rocks is an invitation to try again. Ante might think that’s proud, but to everyone else it feels like youthful swagger. We all know people like that and one of the more heartbreaking facets of Murina is the deep gulf between the way Ante sees himself and the way he is seen by those closest to him.

The father’s attitude, of course, puts him on a crash course with his daughter, who is just beginning to assert her independence. In sharp contrast to Lucev’s garrulous, chest-pounding arrogance, Filipovic maintains a calm, intense focus on everything around her – almost like a prisoner awaiting the right chance to escape. And the girl finds an opportunity with the arrival of Javier (Cliff Curtis), a gazillion family friend, visiting for the first time in years, who promises to help Julija get into Harvard, where he will find a library has donated.

Julija watches her parents with Javier and sees untrodden paths and unlived lives. It’s clear that Javier was once in love with Nela and that his friendship with Ante has suffered some strains over the years. Sensing this, Julija develops a closer relationship with Javier (she even refers to him as her father at one point), while at the same time trying to rekindle his passion for her mother. According to the girl, it shouldn’t take too much effort to flee with her mother and Javier to start a new family and leave Ante behind. It’s certainly an absurd child’s fantasy, but in the film’s heated immediacy it makes a twisted emotional sense. Kusijanović conveys all of this through the way her actors move against and look at each other. This is filmmaking at its finest – intimate and compelling.

For his part, Ante has a half-baked plan to convince Javier to buy large plots of land so they can open a resort for Italian tourists together – a resort where Julija will of course have to work at some point. “Dreams die in paradise,” the infinitely patient Javier tells Ante, trying to convince him to let the girl study abroad. This line could be the defining aesthetic of the film. The settings of Murina are certainly beautiful, but Kusijanović avoids the siren call of the picturesque. The sea is steel blue, the terrain arid and moonlike; the landscape is deprived of all possibilities. Even the expertly shot underwater sequences have an odd, surreal desolation; only those ghostly short-tailed moray eels seem to exist in this desolate blue world. (We hardly see any other fish.) The daughter’s dreams cannot be contained by this barren shore, while the father’s dreams have congealed to empty grandeur here. The whole place is choked with life. And yet the image itself is somehow wonderfully alive.

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