Near the end of Croatian filmmaker Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović’s debut feature Murina, the 17-year old protagonist Julija (Gracija Filipović) is told by her family friend — the handsome and stately Javier (Cliff Curtis) — that she is strong. Javier is telling her that she is strong enough to survive what he knows is a terrible situation, and telling that because she has gotten this far in life, she will be able to go further and survive her father’s brutishness on her own. Before Javier says this, Julija has an obstinate set to her jaw; her eyes are focused, her face is wearing a strength that masks the febrility rattling within her. She’s wearing an expression whose insistence she hopes will persuade Javier. But when Javier sits her down on her bed and says, “You’re strong,” her eyebrows arch and her internal tiredness and sadness break through to the surface. A child should not have to be this strong.
It’s a stunning, if heartbreaking, scene for the way it simultaneously feels like a hug and a gut punch knocking the air out of your lungs. This is an apt encapsulation of Murina as a whole — this is a film that is a stunning gut punch. At its core, it is a deeply harrowing film, but its surface would have you believe otherwise, for it is cinematographically brilliantly gorgeous. It is the friction of this paradox, a romantic veneer masking a grim realism squirming beneath it, that mightily thrusts this debut into the league of all our favorite colorful films noir (think Niagara and Leave Her to Heaven and even By the Sea). In a sense, Kusijanović mirrors this narrative paradox through genre as well, smuggling in a noiresque vibe through the apparent coming-of-age genre Murina wears, because it has its teenage protagonist in unconventional and dire straits as she fights and connives to survive against sunny appearances to attain freedom from her monstrous father.
The film takes place over a few summer days, its drama playing out in a picture-perfect landscape. Julija lives with her family in a Croatian coastal town. She is a skilled diver who helps her fisherman father Ante (Leon Lučev) dive for and catch eels. Ante is a brute, portrayed with a sinister deftness by Lučev — he hurls abuses at Julija all as he commands her around, getting her to work for him as though she were his property, berating and humiliating both Julija and her mother Nela (Danica Curcic) for every action they do or do not perform. He does this at times through clenched teeth barred in a grotesque smile publicly, and at most times behaves physically brusquely within the privacy of their own home. The film begins with Ante preparing for the arrival of his childhood friend Javier from New York. Ante wants to sell a piece of land to Javier that he hopes Javier will turn into a resort, and with the money Ante hopes to move Julija and his wife Nela to Croatia’s capital, Zagreb. Ante seemingly will do anything to achieve this goal, including pimping his own wife to Javier. Before she and Ante married, Nela and Javier were lovers. As Julija observes Javier and Nela’s baldfaced flirting, and Ante’s calculating supplication to Javier, she forms a plan: she will charm the wealthy and free Javier into rescuing her from Ante. The rest of the film follows Julija’s desperate attempts to make it so she and her dejected, passive mother can escape the suffocating grasp of her father.
Javier seems carefree to Julija. He is, apparently, everything her father isn’t: kind, charming, rich, and respectful of her and Nela, seeming to appreciate them and the beauty of the town when Ante can’t seem to. Indeed, Ante not only neglects to appreciate the sunny beauty of his surroundings, but also can’t seem to stop doing violence to and berating the women in his family. Lučev is terrifying as Ante, pitch-perfect in his depiction of the patheticness of this small, sinister man. He wears a small speedo when fishing that seems about to slip off every time he emerges from the water; when he wears his shorts, you can almost catch a glimpse of his buttcrack. When he is drunk, he is stumbling and emotional, impolite and terrifying, and when he lies on lawn chairs, he does so with a paltry smallness — nothing like the confident stature that Javier possesses, as Julija notices. Ante is grotesque and pathetic, as is apt for a violent little disgusting man, while Javier is calm and controlled, apparently. But as is always the case with violent patriarchs, even as he is pathetic, Ante wields a kind of controlling power that seems to suffocate and destroy Nela and Julija, which is why Julija wants to be free.
Filipović, too, is pitch-perfect as Julija, her face oftentimes unemotive before Ante, as if petrified to hint at her inner workings, or simply tired. But she also contains a sort of strength in the way she keeps on defying Ante, embarrassing him in turn as he does violence to her and Nela. It’s interesting because this strength in Julija is deeply affecting: it is worn by Filipović as though Julija has nothing to lose, the kind of strength one who knows they have no hope possesses. The only times Julija seems genuinely content is when she is underwater, alone, closing her eyes and letting the blinding blue swallow her. Water isn’t posed in this movie as a safe space, for Ante is still able to hurt her beneath its depths, and it certainly is, through its wildness, shown for the danger it poses. But it’s also not something Julija is afraid of, because she is a skilled diver, a dynamic similar to the way she isn’t afraid of Ante, simply overpowered by him. The film seems to pose the unruliness of the sea as a beautiful corollary to Julijia, who’s a complex character, full of acidity and goodness.
This film has a deft understanding of its characters, which is why the tension between its blindingly beautiful appearance and seedy reality is so captivating. Every character seems to be given respect in terms of having, if not a justification for why they are the way they are, then at least a satisfying causality behind their actions. Ante, though an ignoble and small despot, has suffered and is cunning enough to keep up appearances for the public: when there are others around, he keeps the smile on his face unmoving as he hurls insults alongside commands at Julija, and when the English-speaking Javier is around them, he speaks in Croatian, the insults seemingly blunted in Javier’s eyes by the decorum Ante knows to uphold. But Julija sees Ante’s wild eyes, the anger simmering beneath his barred teeth like a lion’s growl. All about Julija is the pressure to uphold this sinister facade for Ante’s sake, but with Ante’s increasing desperation to sell the land, Julija finds it more and more difficult to care for her father’s success, to love him at all.
It’s this friction between keeping up appearances for Javier and for the other powerful men in town in face of the psychological and physical pain that Ante is causing to Julija — all taking place within a paradisiacal landscape — that makes Murina a captivating thriller, a deliciously unnerving film noir. Julija’s sadness and desperation, her heartbreaking tragedy, are like that of Marilyn Monroe’s Rose Loomis in 1953’s vibrant Niagara, whose breathy colorfulness seems to belie Rose’s tragedy — someone in a sparkling and shimmering Eden like Croatia ought to be happy, we might think, in the way we, initially, might think that Rose Loomis is probably happy with her husband in a vacation spot meant for honeymooners. The femme fatale character seems to be split between Julija and Nela in Murina, with Julija calculating to charm Javier as a daughter, and urging her mother to charm Javier using her sexuality so that he might save them from Ante.
“Look how she bit her own flesh to set herself free,” says Ante’s housekeeper to Julija as they debone murina, the moray eels, at the film’s start. The housekeeper doesn’t mean for this sentence to have a double-meaning for Julija, even if she certainly knows of Ante’s tempestuousness. It’s a beautiful day, but Julija can’t keep from stealing glances at the yacht docked in their harbor, full of teenagers being teenagers: diving, drinking, flirting with each other. Julija should be among those kids, not working for her father who abuses her, who tells her that she will never make it to Harvard, that she is unintelligent, that she has the shoulders of a boy. Julija, like Monroe’s Rose, lives a seemingly desperately hopeless life, wants more than anything to live out the freedom of youth, wants, perhaps, for her life to unfurl with the levity of a traditional coming-of-age tale.
As Julija works to gain her independence, it’s this friction between forlorn existence and working-class respectability that gives Murina the pace of a thriller, of a noir, as Julija works to be free from the danger in a seemingly idyllic place. It’s impossible to look away from this film, tragic and heartbreaking and anger inducing as it is. I want to punch Ante, and that I do only proves Kusijanović’s skill as a director, along with her understanding of a patriarch’s violence. Murina is not your typical coming of age tale, it’s the story of a child’s attempts to survive the violence of her father, something no child should have to be strong enough to endure because no father ought to treat his daughter in the way Ante does.
When Javier tells Julija to be strong, the handsome salutary aura that surrounded him in Julija’s eyes is punctured: she too sees how appearances can beguile and lead astray, how others cannot be relied upon for safety, a lesson she is way too young to learn. Murina is a tour de force that charts how tragedy can fester in the most vibrant and stunning of places, excavating how no one is immune from the mystique of appearances, ultimately reinvigorating what a coming-of-age story can look like. I can’t wait to see what Kusijanović creates next.