Director Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović’s extraordinary debut feature Murina starts and ends submerged in water, specifically the Adriatic Sea off the coast of Croatia. The beginning is serene, and the conclusion is fraught. It’s an elegant, circular structure that closes a loop while opening another.
Then again, we never really leave the sea, so intrinsic is this vast, indiscriminate and mysterious element to the characters’ lives. Referred to frequently even when not experienced directly by the family of three that lives off its bounty, it can’t help but become this roiling movie’s most reliable narrator.
For 17-year-old protagonist Julija (Gracija Filipović), the seascape functions alternately as a prison and an escape, a place of existential fear and illicit desire. A talented swimmer and diver, she spearfishes for electric eel — which she calls murina, in the Croatian language — with her domineering father Ante (Leon Lučev), and it’s essentially the only time in their lives when these warring factions are on the same page.
We see no love expressed from the barbaric and despotic Ante, who orders Julija around when he’s not overtly manhandling her, treating her like a house servant or a misbehaving dog: “Why did you let her out?” he exclaims at one point, exasperated, to his meek wife Nela (Danica Čurčić), a character no more enamored with Ante than Julija is, though lacking her daughter’s gumption.
Besides, an opportunity for a new start may soon be arriving in the form of Javier (Cliff Curtis), a businessman of international renown and a former colleague of Ante’s who checks off all boxes of tall, dark and handsome. He has disembarked on the family’s property to scope it out for purchase. For Nela, this transaction would fund a long-awaited move to the Croatian capital of Zagreb, should the family survive a weekend with their invited guest — whose flirtations with both Nela and Julija threaten to further disrupt an already tenuous arrangement.
Director Kusijanović writes and directs with a bracing sense of economy, showing us what is necessary and nothing more, with echoes of early Polanski — in fact, a knife figures into the story, but it doesn’t make it into the water — but with a more feminist slant. She lets us experience the toxic male gaze that follows Julija everywhere, from the leering tourists on boats to the dirty comments of her father’s business partners (“Your daughter walks around half-naked like a tease,” offers one commenter, while Julija sports a relatively demure one-piece swimsuit). It’s no wonder Julija appreciates the water so much; the murina don’t engage in eye rape.
Kusijanović’s dialogue is laden with psychological subtext, each scene pregnant with unease, tension burbling from nearly every line. As with the sea, there’s the surface of things, placid and polite, and there’s the unseen fathoms, rife with terrifying possibility. The result can be almost unbearably intense.
It can also be ecstatic, as when Javier plunges 40 meters deep with Julija, a new record for the teenage diver. Captured by cinematographer Hélène Louvart’s luminescent lens, the two appear to be dancing in the depths — a pas de deux in the deep blue sea. For Julija, it’s not a deflowering, exactly, but it may be more impactful. There’s that water again, ever the mercurial mistress; just a few scenes later, Julija will confront her mortality in this very sea.
Like in many a great coming-of-age story — and Murina ranks right up there with modern marvels like Eliza Hittman’s It Felt Like Love and Celine Sciamma’s Water Lilies — surviving these fundamental years might just mean swimming against the tide.
MURINA. Director: Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović; Cast: Gracija Filipović, Leon Lučev, Danica Curcic, Cliff Curtis; Distributor: Kino Lorber; In Croatian and English with English subtitles; Not rated; Playing now at Coral Gables Art Cinema; runs from today to July 24 at Lake Worth Playhouse’s Stonzek Studio; available to stream at Virtual Cinemas Network at Northampton Film House