Filmmakers and writers have long understood the oppressive powers of heat, its ability to sweat out the worst, most violent, most lustful in us. But there’s another glaring natural element that functions in a way similar to heat, that in a sense is a corollary to heat: bright light. In the way that heat grates and scratches, brightness suffocates, snuffs out the shadows that keep secrets, that hide violence and hatred. A landscape’s glaring natural beauty, a paradisiacal setting all have the ability to cast in stark relief the effort it takes to strive toward the perfection of one’s environment, exposing this effort’s hypocrisy or contrivance in face of the badness that it reveals. Brightness makes it all the more obvious and perhaps necessary when people inevitably fail to live up to nature’s beauty, because we have finally seen their frailty that used to hide in darkness.
It is this understanding of the ability of brightness to puncture facades and lambast secrets that drives through Antoneta Alamat Kusijanovic’s simmering and stunning feature debut, Murina. The film, executive produced by Martin Scorsese, won the Caméra d’Or Award at Cannes in 2021, and has been nominated for three Film Independent Spirit Awards, including best feature for Kusijanovic and best breakthrough performance by lead Gracija Filipovic, who late last year took home the Gotham Independent Film Award for her performance.
The film has been dubbed a “sunshine noir” by critics, but there’s something about that moniker that suggests a contrivance that is belied by Murina’s expository effortlessness. The plot, which follows Filipovic’s teenaged Julija as she navigates a few sunny days around her violent and domineering and supplicatory father Ante (Leon Lučev), and taciturn mother Nela (Danica Curcic), as they are visited by her parents’ charming and mysterious friend Javier (Cliff Curtis), unfurls in an effortless way, akin to the inevitable manner in which the dawn washes away misty shadows. And it seems that because of Kusijanovic’s delicately observing lens, the film becomes more horrific than it might have been if it adhered tightly to the general confines of noir.
“When I was thinking of the movie, I certainly had in mind that violence does not only happen in dark alleys,” Kusijanovic tells me over Zoom in mid-December. She is joined by Filipovic. The two are sitting close together in a hotel room in New York, a Christmas tree with baubles of warm golden light dotted amongst its branches twinkling behind them. “And I really wanted to bring the simmering violence under the sun, you know, where characters are really burning, like raw flesh on the stone.”
In the film, the only respite from the glaring gaze of the sun is the water for Julija, who is lithe as she easily slices through the turquoise of the sea about her, like a bird gliding through the fabric of the sky. Julija is an adept swimmer, carrying the local record in holding her breath underwater. She fishes for murina, or moray eels, with her father Ante, a local fisherman who hopes to sell a plot of land to Javier so that he might relocate his small family to the Croatian capital of Zagreb. Javier’s arrival spurs on a match of wits between Ante — who is in the awkward position of wooing his childhood friend but also quasi-benefactor Javier, who used to date Nela when the three adults were younger — and Julija, who resents Ante. Ante repeatedly insults Julija’s intelligence and skill with words like daggers, often handling her with the brusque violence a child might use with a frustrating toy.
There is an enticing and charged dynamic at play between the four characters in Murina. Ante simultaneously admires and resents Javier, having worked for Javier’s father when the two were younger. Ante realizes his lower status in relation to Javier, but also prides himself on having won the prize of Nela, for whom Javier still obviously lusts. Compared to Ante’s disdain, Javier’s attention and kind words to Julija spark in the young girl a desire for the father figure she has sorely missed, and commingled with the desire to see Javier as a quasi-father figure is also a desire to seduce him, to succeed where Nela failed. Julija, to spite her father and to escape his despotic grip that aims to hold her linked with him perpetually as a fishing partner, hopes to charm Javier enough that he might ask her and Nela to leave Ante with him. Many of Julija’s attempts at charming Javier take place in shadowy settings, while Ante’s violence toward the women in his family seems not to be confined by any setting, not intimidated by the brightness of the sun. This is the complex as a labyrinth but subtle as smoke drama of Murina, much of which is communicated in tense or icy glances and bated breath, and which Murina follows, watches as it unfurls slowly at first and then explodes with the inevitability of gunpowder and a dropped match.
“There’s so much good that happens in the dark moments of this movie,” Kusijanovic says. “But also there was no place to breathe there because they’re usually underwater, and it’s a space where we can’t stay because it’s uninhabitable. [These uninhabitable scenes] are all the scenes with Javier and Julija, where she feels free and like a fish, you know? But she’s not a fish. She’s a girl. And she could not hide underwater, except for a very short period of time. And the wide spaces and the sunny setting, I really wanted it to feel claustrophobic even when it’s in a wide shot.”
“For me, it is always important that film is a mirror to life,” she adds. “And everything that I build into the movie, both emotionally, spiritually, visually, psychologically, comes from the things I witness, watch, observe, or that intrigue me. And all of these people are not necessarily people in my family, but it’s the people I know and I’ve seen and the situations I’ve witnessed.”
For Croatian audiences, Kusijanovic notes, Murina is so naturalist that its horrors don’t register, and are rather seen as par for the course. “When we screened the film in Croatia, the note we got was, ‘nothing happens in this movie. It’s just a regular Croatian family.’”
Kusijanovic says she was able to dramatize such a complex dynamic — the kind that relies for much of its emotional heft not so much on direct dialogue but rather on what is unsaid, on the actors’ performances and balletic movement about each other — between Julija, Ante, Javier, and Nela in a rather simple manner.
“[As I write the characters,] I act them all out in my head and with my co-writer [Frank Graziano],” Kusijanovic says. “We go and we play it out, [asking,] is this real to this person in this moment? [That’s the first question we ask.] Is this true? And the second question is, does this advance the story? And then the question that makes it sealed is, does the audience follow it emotionally?”
Watching Murina in my home in Canada, having grown up in a decidedly Western culture, often was tough, for how brutal Ante is to young Julija. But at the same time, so much of Ante’s brutality is familiar to me for the same reasons that Croatian audiences find it familiar, because I’m also Pakistani, from a culture that has never been the most respectful toward women. I have seen men handle the women about them with the careless violence of a child toward her dolls, pulling them along behind them, or pushing them out of the way like so much dust or debris. Ante physically interacts with Julija and Nela as though they were bits of his property, he dresses them up when Javier visits as though they were bartering chips, their dignity nonexistent for him and their presence as malleable and manageable as the bit of land he owns is expendable, a means to an end.
“Because it’s not really abuse, you know, in his eyes or in the eyes of others,” Kusijanovic tells me when I ask her why nobody within the community helps Nela or Julija when they see Ante handle them violently. “The man is the head of a family, and the women are his: my wife, my daughter, my house, my family. It’s not theirs, it’s his. And it’s the same if he would relate and talk to other women — they would be your wife, your family, your daughter, your life, your projects, your future. His daughter’s future is also his future. She is his pride, she’s his shame, which is something that does not only come from our side of the world. I mean, we can go so far East and West to recognize these same dynamics. We often attach them [these dynamics] to the folklore of one’s mentality — you know, it’s Mediterranean.”
“It’s a tradition,” Filipovic adds and Kusijanovic echoes her words.
“But actually, tradition is like having a Christmas tree and good music and certain types of dishes that you prepare and rituals that you do,” Kusijanovic observes. “It’s not violence and owning your children and owning your family.”
“We created a really safe place for us,” Filipovic says when I ask whether the cast and crew took steps to care for each other in between the more brutal scenes in the film. “And I think that came from having many rehearsals as well, because we had a lot of rehearsals: every person by themselves and Antoneta, but also with each other. We were living together for two weeks as a family.”
“Uh, four weeks,” Kusijanovic interjects.
“It was four weeks,” Filipovic says with a smile. “So me, Antoneta, and other actors — I really think that created that family dynamic and helped characters to be really believable as well. And also what I think really helped is that this family situation is so normalized that every one of us knew a family like this. It’s not something that is out of this world, [where] we have to imagine things. It’s something that is very normal and we know them together and separately.”
To see Filipovic and Kusijanovic together, side by side, it seems like they have known each other all their lives, which for 21-year-old Filipovic is half true. They easily, fluidly speak around each other, one patiently waiting for the other to finish her thoughts, correcting only when necessary, laughing or smiling slyly as unstated but shared images come to their minds when Filipovic brings up the time the group spent living together.
“It’s very interesting to see how our relationship shaped from her being almost like my mother when we shot Into the Blue [the short film from 2017 that inspired Murina] and this music video that we did before,” Filipovic says. “Then her becoming my friend, and then after Murina, [she became] my biggest friend and biggest supporter.”
Kusijanovic speaks of the intuitive and symbiotic energy she and Filipovic shared as they collaborated on the film, building its world and compellingly grounding it in reality. “It was a very good moment because it was a moment of us being partners in all the ways,” Kusijanovic says. “[As we filmed we knew] we are really here to bring the best out of each other and this world and make this a movie that we really hope the audience experiences the synergy that we all had on set as a team.”
“For me, it was really amazing how Antoneta, in every moment, she just knew what to give me,” Filipovic says. “So whether it was the right direction, whether it was just the space, or just support. And it was really important for me having that safe place on set where I could also tell her, you know, listen, I’m very uncomfortable with this. I don’t wanna do this. And she will be like, yeah, that’s fine. And I think for every actor it’s a dream [to be able to] watch the stars with your director and talk about life.”
It was this closeness with her director that Filipovic credits as her biggest inspiration in portraying Julija with the heartbreaking skill that she does. Filipovic portrays her character with such strength and grace that the viewer oftentimes has to remind themselves that Julija is just a teenager, a girl trapped in such impossibly tough circumstances. As Julija, Filipovic is a force to behold as she holds her head high in defiance of Ante, silently calculating how she might escape his suffocating grasp.
“My biggest inspiration was just the script,” Filipovic says. “And these conversations when we were really building this role from the start [to finish].”
“We didn’t have reference movies,” Kusijanovic says when I ask whether the two looked to other films for inspiration for Murina. “We didn’t have reference movies ever actually, not even for Into the Blue. It’s not like we watched something and we are like, okay, this character is a combination of this one and this one. That was never our process. Our process was living on an island, peeling potatoes together and cooking. Waking up at 5:00 a.m. in character, going to fish. All these background things that aren’t actually ever in a movie, but that build the reality of what you’re seeing within the frame. [A lot of it was] being in this community of the small island, going to their church, singing in their choir, dancing together.”
“All these little moments helped us to build a realistic thing,” Filipovic adds. Indeed, often in watching the film I held my breath alongside Julija as she swam toward escape and away from Ante; as she butted heads with Ante I felt indignant, hot tears in my eyes, my breath escaping my lungs in huffs. The natural aesthetic elements (Kusijanovic’s lens moves stolidly in Julija’s point of view, never looking upon the drama as an outsider, but rather with an intuitive subjectivity) and the cohesion of the cast that defies contradiction, which work to lend the film its realism, also lend the film its gutting horror.
“We knew that [these external elements were] never going to be on screen,” Kusijanovic says of the time the cast spent living together. “But we lived them outside the screen. So once we were playing other scenes on screen, we knew what gravitas they would have.”
“I wrote a diary from Julija’s point of view so I could really get to know her character, and what she thinks about daily situations,” Filipovic says. “In the movie, I don’t have a lot of dialogue. Many, many times I’m just silent. And that diary really helped me to feel present and to be in character.”
Kusijanovic remembers something here. She says that, actually, Filipovic did have something she looked to for inspiration: music. “You would listen, that’s your inspiration, that’s your reference,” she says to Filipovic, who, remembering, confirms that she had a different song she listened to before each scene to get into the scene’s mood.
“I’m not going to tell you which songs,” Filipovic says with a shy smile.
I ask both women how each of them interprets the ending of the film, which sees Julija having escaped from her mother and father, swimming away into a seemingly boundless deep blue. As the credits roll, Julija is still swimming, she never once grows tired, but she also doesn’t reach a destination — at the end of the credits’ scroll, she is still swimming.
“I feel like every young person has this voice and has enormous strength that they just need to free,” Filipovic says. “And for me, there was a hope that you can escape [a bad situation]. This [Julija’s situation] almost feels like a generational trauma, but you can be the one to break it. And for me it was really important, this message to all the young people, but also every person that is in this situation, that you can really make it out alive.”
“But also, if you are not in such a dark situation, just remember the resilience and desire you had in the beginning of your life,” Kusijanovic adds. She’s speaking of the kind of hunger you have when you’re young that sees you setting goals and breaking through barriers to achieve them.
“I think that that resilience, as dangerous as it is, it’s also so necessary for any type of creation,” Kusijanovic says. “I remember when Frank Graziano, my co-writer, and I finished the script, we wrote, ‘She’s swimming away from the island. There’s only blue around her, but we know she will arrive somewhere.’ And he said, how are you gonna shoot this line? What does it mean? And I’m like, don’t worry. I think I know. […] It was like always this idea that, even though you are such a small dot, so tiny underneath the stars, there is a power in it.”