Throughout Murina, the first feature by Croatian director Antoneta Alamat Kusijanovic and winner of the Caméra d’Or at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, Ante (Leon Lucev) oscillates between being terrifying and hilarious. His outbursts to protect his pride and superiority over his 17-year-old daughter Julija (Gracija Filipovic) are often so explosive as to be laughable. But her reactions to his impulses keep the audience in suspense. Could it be that he really means his insults and stands by his vicious contempt for her? Julija has no choice but to withstand her father’s control and threats every minute of every day on the beautiful but isolated island they call home. With each dawn, she has to accompany him to hunt the murina (eel), always at his service.
Kusijanovic expertly breaks down the forced servitude and the brutal familial mechanisms of this particular kind of patriarchy. To this writer, whose own father grew up in the Balkans, such machismo and ruthlessness is all too familiar, though Ante is far more severe (thankfully). While Kusijanovic isn’t pursuing an anthropological or socio-historical project, her story makes transparent the inferiority complex that often leads men in the region, still suffering from its war wounds and shame, to build hypocritical defenses against their own weakness and vulnerability. When Javier (a sensitive and charming Cliff Curtis), an old family friend and millionaire, visits to potentially buy the land from Ante and significantly help the family financially, Julija witnesses her father lose all self-respect to please him. Next to Ante, Javier seems a beacon of truth and tenderness. And next to Julija’s mother Nela (Danica Curcic), whom Javier admits he used to have a crush on, he looks like a much more suitable partner, at least in Julija’s eyes. For the first time, she witnesses a relationship where duties of care and emotional openness are not reserved for the woman. Javier is at once the father and the lover that Julija never had, so constrained and repressed are all her natural instincts for connection and love in this environment.
As Ante shrinks more and more in front of Javier, driven by his desperation to move up in society and feel better about himself, and as her own mother keeps patiently tolerating his arrogance, Julija recognizes that all her life, her father has used her to fill some void and have someone to stand on, and that she deserves better. Her emancipation is far more complex and real than the stereotypical and gendered kind that movies tend to depict. Her oppressor uses her femininity as an excuse, when what he is really targeting is her natural need for independence. And unlike most coming-of-age stories, Murina isn’t afraid to tap into the deep wells of despair and loneliness that often come with growth. Kusijanovic toes the line between classical epic tragedy and a more realistic kind of drama, with a style that’s careful but direct. She’s aided by the sensitive cinematography of Hélène Louvart, who frames Julija like a sea creature, more comfortable in the depths where only she can go, but always alone.
Murina opens in select theaters July 8.