Murina, the directorial debut of Croatian director Antoneta Alamat Kusijanovic, is completely saturated by the intoxicating turquoise hue of the Adriatic Sea. Of course, the film’s idyllic island setting serves to contrast intense personal tumult experienced by its characters. Touted as a sun-soaked coming-of-age noir with a distinctly feminist slant, Murina’s superficial allure is unfortunately undercut by its flimsy, lackadaisical script. It plays into the banal trope that equates abused women with prey animals, all the while predicating the protagonist’s happiness on a wealthy man who’s ostensibly come to “rescue” her. Despite this unsavory (and largely uninspired) central narrative, the film features dazzling underwater scenes that are both entrancing and eerie. Having won the Caméra d’Or during the Director’s Fortnight at this year’s Cannes (the festival’s highest award for a first-time filmmaker), Murina certainly displays directorial chops, yet feels far too paltry in its premise to amount to a truly buzzworthy feature debut.
Julija (Gracija Filipovic), 17 years old, spends the grand majority of her days diving for eels with her domineering father Ante (Leon Lucev) off the coast of their Croatian island home. While she’s clearly comfortable in the water, she desperately wishes to flee her specific seaside surroundings. Though the island is frequently populated by young Europeans on holiday, Julija hardly interacts with anyone besides Ante and her mother Nela (Danica Curcic). Her parents’ polarized personalities—one a blaring tyrant, the other his acquiescent abettor—confine Julija to an existence of constant patriarchal servitude. However, with the sudden arrival of wealthy foreigner Javier (Cliff Curtis) to their small island abode, Julija eyes emancipation for the first time in her life. Having once been Ante’s employer and Nela’s lover, Javier’s presence heightens the already intense family dynamic. Ante becomes more verbally and visibly cruel toward Julija, while Nela entertains the idea of rekindling the flame she once shared with Javier. Upset by Ante’s treatment of his daughter and still plainly enamored with Nela, Javier just might be Julija’s unlikely ticket off of the island for good—but first, she must aid her family in convincing the successful resort mogul to buy their property to build his newest hotel.
The intimate cast serves as a dual boon and detriment to Murina. On the one hand, the lack of extraneous characters allows the shimmering Adriatic Sea to take center stage. However, the aquamarine seascape proves far more compelling than the tenuous relationships that propel the film’s plot. Ante is cartoonishly brutish, Nela’s very personhood is paper-thin and Javier’s insipid kindness feels at odds with his brand of land-grabbing capitalism. Julija is, unsurprisingly, the most fleshed-out character—but even her justified teenage ennui feels suspiciously hollow. Who does Julija strive to be? What does she yearn for? Aside from scuba diving and escaping the island with Javier, the audience gets virtually no glimpse into her broader desires and motivations.
To the film’s credit, the characters are perfectly utilized in underwater sequences, with the actors phenomenally conveying conflict and emotion without any dialogue. Their leaden, waterlogged movements are both elegant and clumsy, communicating discomfort and contentedness to varying degrees in multiple distinct scenarios. The success of these scenes is hinged on the involvement of cinematographer Helène Louvart, who has gorgeously captured an array of seascapes throughout her career: The scattered mirrors reflecting the sand and sea in The Beaches of Agnès; the gritty, sun-battered Coney Island shore in Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats; the melancholy Mediterranean vibe of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter. In fact, there are several similarities between Kusijanovic and Gyllenhaal’s films: Mothers “failing” their daughters, the ocean as a symbol for both prison and paradise, the visceral urge to escape our cumbersome bloodlines. Yet where The Lost Daughter boldly presents the narrative of a “bad” mother, Murina reduces Nela to a two-dimensional caricature whose greatest moral shortcoming is choosing the wrong man. For a film that touts itself as overtly feminist, it’s perplexing that men and women occupy such binary roles. Men are abusers or saviors, women are subjugated or defiant.
Perhaps most confounding is Murina’s heavy-handed allegory that compares its central character to a wild animal. The film’s title is the Croatian word for a moray eel, the preferred target of Julija and Ante’s fishing spear. After coming home with a fresh catch early in the film, the family’s oft-absent housekeeper comments on the eel’s self-inflicted injuries while gutting and scaling it for dinner. “Look how she bit her own flesh to set herself free,” she sagely comments without provocation. Julija makes a similar decision to face death and fight for survival during the film’s climax, a genuinely gripping moment that manages to channel Old, The Descent and Il Buco. It is at once horrifying, beautiful and literally breathtaking. However, equating Julija’s experience to an animal hunted for food and sport feels fraught, and wades into reductive waters. Disadvantaged women are so much more than prey acting out of self-preserving animal instinct—even if they are ensnared in the seemingly inescapable confines of the patriarchal machine.
While the script co-written by Kusijanovic and Frank Graziano is hardly revelatory, Murina is nonetheless a strong directorial effort from a first-time feature helmer. With the prestigious Camera d’Or award now on her mantle, Kusijanovic can perhaps take the reins with complete confidence on her next writing/directing effort—hopefully cultivating a more robust survey of feminine strife and feminist rebellion that doesn’t play into uninspired allegories.
Director: Antoneta Alamat Kusijanovic
Writers: Antoneta Alamat Kusijanovic, Frank Graziano
Stars: Gracija Filipovic, Danica Curcic, Leon Lucev, Cliff Curtis
Release Date: July 8, 2022 (Kino Lorber)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Filmmaker Magazine, Paste Magazine and Blood Knife Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan