Murina follows Julija (Gracija Filipovic), a 16-year old girl living with her parents on an island that many would consider to be a heavenly paradise. With an endless summer maintained by daily chores of fishing in beautiful vistas, it sounds like the perfect place to live. But underneath the façade lies something that is anything but perfect.
Julija and her mother Nela (Danica Curcic) live under the family patriarch Ante (Leon Lucey); an overbearing, domineering man with an explosive temper. While Nela is mostly compliant, Julija is more passive-aggressive toward Ante, wanting to escape from his clutches. Her anger reveals itself in minute ways, like her reticence in participating in her chores, and at one specific moment, deliberately omitting a line from a poetry reading in front of guests, leading to embarrassment.
But things take a turn with the arrival of the handsome and charming Javier (Cliff Curtis), who is an old friend of Ante and a former lover of Nela. With Julija being on the bridge between adolescence and adulthood, will she ever manage to navigate her way out?
It is amazing to see a directorial debut that is this confident and assured. Writer/director Antoneta Alamat Kusijanovic has come up with a fantastic piece of work that succeeds as both a coming-of-age tale and a psychological drama. Part of what makes Murina so good is how Kusijanovic manages to bring all of her ideas naturally to the story and her characters. Ideas of patriarchy, sexual discovery, misogyny, brimming filial anger are all considered in its taut runtime. Kusijanovic conveys her ideas with the lightest touch leading with the greatest impact. In fact, the touch can be so light that it adds a sense of unpredictability to the storytelling.
Murina‘s paradise island functions as a prison for the family; the motif of the red dress is both a remembrance of the past as well as a signifier of the women’s oppression; the titular creature (a Mediterranean moray fish that looks like an eel) is all at once the source of the family’s sustenance, the binding device between father and daughter, and a reflection of Julija’s state of mind – a free creature that is known to attack people with its sharp teeth.
Javier, too, functions as a symbol. Nela and Ante both see him as a remnant of happier times, filled with youthful energy, sexual exploration and optimism. Yet in the case of Julija, the audience is kept outside the loop as to whether she sees Javier as a catalyst for sexual exploration or a father figure to fill the void that Ante left behind. Both observations provide plenty of food for thought, and it is depth like that which makes Kusijanovic a great storyteller.
Kusijanovic is aided capably by her crew, particularly the efforts from cinematographer Helene Louvart and composers Sacha and Evgueni Galperine. Louvart, whose prior work in Happy as Lazzaro added grit to a story of magical realism, manages to provide similarly impactful work here, lending the beautiful paradise a sense of unease, thanks to its earthy, tactile look. Similarly, the Galperines’ score may be sparse, but it offers both a sense of grace, that complements the feel of paradise, and a sense of foreboding, as it hints at the darkness within, especially with the scenes set underwater, when Julija swims with her father or Javier.
The four leads all do stellar work, as they add charisma, depth and nuance to their three-dimensional characters. Curcic is compellingly vulnerable as Nela, while Lucey brings humanity underneath the enraged exterior of Ante. Curtis conveys a sense of warmth and an enigmatic presence to the role of Javier, making his character hard to decipher what Julija truly thinks of him. Filipovic is wonderful in the lead role, never shying away from making the character honestly portrayed in terms of her angst and her promiscuity, while still imbuing a sense of empathy in her sense of institution, both literally and figuratively.
Overall, Murina is a beautifully crafted and emotionally sound coming-of-age tale about the filial anger seething within. It immediately draws you in, with nuanced performances, stand-out earthy cinematography from Louvart, and fantastically controlled direction from Kusijanovic. Highly recommended.
FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Murina screened as part of this year’s Toronto Film Festival, which is being presented both in-person and virtually between September 9th and 18th, 2021. For more information head to the official TIFF page.