A dramatically charged coming-of-age story about a young–woman who is soon to be 18 years old and yearns for her own personal freedom from her deeply controlling father and complicit mother, Murina is an exquisitely shot, fiercely constructed Croatian sea drama. Antoneta Alamat Kusijanovic’s impressive debut feature, which won the Camera D’Or prize at Cannes, can certainly be compared to the early films of Celine Sciamma, Andea Arnold, Eliza Hittman, and Sofia Coppola, which explore films about teenage girls who all long for their own freedom from some sort of patriarchal or parental control.
Undeniably in the same milieu as many coming-of-age stories we have seen before, the film should be embraced for its refreshing setting that takes place mostly on the water and shores of the Adriatic Sea off the shores of Croatia. The film also holds many layers of a psychological drama with some shades of a suspense thriller. The film, which takes place in warm weather and on the water, holds an atmosphere to it that recalls Roman Polanski’s 1962 debut feature Knife in the Water, and Kusijanovic’s debut feature should pave the way for her to gain greater notoriety that will launch her film career into larger, more seasoned indies in years to come.
Most interesting is Kusijanovic’s eye to whether and tone, in which the ravishing cinematography by Hélène Louvart certainly helps design the film’s atmosphere, where the water and shores give it the atmosphere of a Michelangelo Antonini film. Kusijanovic’s vision is brought to life by the cinematography, which strikes a balance between the tone of an elegiac tone poem and the mood of a suspense thriller. Either way, Kusijanovic’s shows great potential for what she is capable of in terms of mood and tonal shifts.
The title Murina, which is the name of a certain Mediterranean eel that bites its own flesh in its attempt to free itself whenever it’s hit by a harpoon or fisherman’s hook. With stunning underwater photography that can rival any James Cameron adventure, the film opens with the 17-year-old Julija (Gracija Filipovic) swimming with her father in the dark waters below, harpooning a moray eel. Julija instantly frees the eel as it swims away. Not only does this cleverly or rather quickly build-up the yearnings that Julija holds for freedom, it also represents the hostile household environment where her father treats her and her own mother, Nela (Danica Curcic), like his property as she yearns to escape from a small island off the shores of Croatia. In a lifestyle where Julija has been trained since her childhood to swim expeditiously, how to steer a sailboat, and hunt sea creatures and fish, all for her father’s personal gain.
Julija finds herself an opportunity arising once Javier (Cliff Curtis) arrives, a wealthy businessman and family friend of the family whose presence ends up awakening Julija’s rebellious side that she has confined within. We begin to see her femininity begin to shine through, where she also becomes more combative from her father’s controlling persona. She begins to realize her teenage years are coming to an end, and her true unvoiced dreams of wanting to get off the island, move away from her father, and depart the sea life end up spilling out of her. Ante arrives to possibly buy some property off the shores and asks Ante for a ride on his boat for a substantial payment.
This leads to more tension between Ante and Juliaj forming, as her desires begin to show as she openly flirts with Javier, who is the only person who is able to reel in Ante’s vile temperament. Both men also have a past that is left ambiguous, but Javier, too, is an opportunist who uses his wealth and status to get what he wants at the suffering of others’ expense. He’s really much like Ante but has different methods in his own authoritarian ways. Ante admires his wealth, but deep-down hates him as well, Juliaj begins to observe that he holds a past love for her own mother, and the attraction still lives on. Ante also forms a strong friendship with Juliah during the course of their journey on the boat. Kusijanovic observes with deep ambiguity if Javier builds this friendship because he views her more as a paternal matter, or is it possible that he observes a younger version of Julija’s mother within? This is what makes this film such a sophisticated and mature first feature, just how Kusijanovic doesn’t overemphasize her manifestations.
On a scene-by-scene basis, the film always engages as Kusijanovic relentlessly builds up tension that never feels overly stylized, but rather naturalistic. With sharp camera movements (especially underwater), vivid locales, natural dialogue, and raw emotions, define this story about one young woman trying to take control of what she wants. It becomes a combative manifestation of what defines femininity and combats against the coercive nature of aggressive parents. It also becomes a liberating film about adolescent impulses and how they can easily rebel and erupt against parental restraints, and as such, it’s an idealistic film, albeit one where Juliah, for once, possibly finds her own emancipation that is left either reassuring or possibly even tragic. There might not be anything completely fresh about Kusijanovic’s storytelling; we have seen these themes many times before, but the setting, visuals, and performances are what truly anchor the film. From the start, she doesn’t miss one false note with the emotions, and nothing feels forced or overly stylized like so many first features succumb to. Kusijanovic welcomes the viewer to empathize with this young protagonist, and she excels. It’s a skillfully crafted, engaging, and impressive debut feature.