The premise of this film is not out of the ordinary: it’s yet another saga about a troubled teenaged girl on the cusp of adulthood seeking to escape an abusive father and deceitful mother. And the narrative is not particularly unique either: how many films feature a plot where a weekend get-together with old friends quickly devolves into a tense, emotion-laden event full of conflict and dredged-up revelations?
But Murina is not by any stretch of the imagination a cliché-ridden film. This debut film by Croatian director Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović is quite an extraordinary character-driven study of human alienation and unhappiness. Based a screenplay she wrote with Frank Graziano, and with Martin Scorsese as executive producer, Murina has emerged as one of the award-winning films of the year, having garnered the Caméra d’Or at Cannes and three of the top awards at the Pula Film Festival.
The lead character, Julija, elegantly portrayed by Gracija Filipović, is a seventeen-year old girl treated as a kind of household slave by her father (Jonas Smulders) who relies on her to navigate the family yacht during their underwater spear-fishing expeditions. The film’s gorgeous underwater scenes and graceful aquatic choreography symbolize the young woman’s own deep dive into the subconscious. Filipović seems a natural for the role: her understated, retiring persona contrasts beautifully with that of David, her garrulous, brutish father.
It is not surprising that Julija should dream of eloping with her father’s suave, sophisticated friend, Javier (Cliff Curtis), whose innate sophistication and worldliness contrast markedly with David’s crudeness. David’s wife, played admirably by Danica Curcic, is the embodiment of the kind of unemancipated woman that her daughter refuses to become.
Kudos to costume designer Amela Baksic for her adroitly subtle use of color in foregrounding the psychological narrative: Julija usually wears a blue one-piece bathing suit, reflecting her sad universe, but briefly changes into a white one just before the climactic finale, as if to assert her virginity. But in one earlier scene, she is shown caressing a red garment, indicating the passion she feels and also as a visual reminder of the violence she endures when she is beaten by her father and locked in a cell-like basement room. One of the most touching scenes during this incarceration comes when she forces open the window to observe an Orthodox religious procession beneath her, as if to suggest her hope for repentance as well as the chastity demanded of cloistered nuns.
Murina is an impressive debut offering from a director we’ll surely be hearing about. Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović instinctively knows how to portray the plight of unemancipated women with authenticity and without any touch of polemical stridency. Indeed, the film’s final scene, in which Julija is seen triumphantly swimming away from her predatory father, is reminiscent of the scene in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, where Nora slams the door on the same kind of toxic masculinity that still besieges women, even in contemporary Croatia.
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