“Murina” has a distinctive European feel, a slow-burning tale about a 17-year-old who seems perfectly suited to the seagoing ways of her seemingly idyllic Croatian island home.
In a one-piece swimsuit, Julia (Gracie Filipovic) dives for moray eels with her father and appears at one with the water, able to move through the Adriatic Sea like the slithery creature she seeks.
So where’s the tension, the dramatic conflict that will make this movie take off? Look no further than the Julia’s domineering father, Ante (Leon Lucev), and her dominated mother, Nela (Danica Curcic).
Julija bristles at the family dynamics, which come into full view with the arrival of a wildly successful businessman who might buy the island to build a resort — and set Jujila’s family free to leave.
The businessman is named Javier (Cliff Curtis), and he apparently has quite a past with the family. Writer/director Antoneta Alamat Kusijanovic doesn’t fill in the details, but drops hints that Javier was once friends with Ante and lovers with Nela. Julija sees a Business Week cover featuring Javier with the headline “The Ruthless Icon,” and she finds some rather disturbing other items in his suitcase, too.
Javier, meanwhile, doesn’t reveal his intentions. Ante tries to court him and sell him on the idea of the island as a future resort, but Javier seems skeptical. Nela sees Javier as the man who got away, who once proposed to her and went on to become a successful businessman who travels the world, but who has started a family of his own. Julija sees Javier as an escape, someone who might send her to boarding school in Switzerland or even get her into Harvard.
Javier doesn’t do much to discourage any of the family. Instead, he seems to relish the role of being the object of desire — on many levels.
This, of course, does not end well for the family dynamics or for a peaceful time on the island. The sexual and adventurous longings of a 17-year-old girl especially become ripe for abuse.
Throughout it all, Julija dominates “Murina,” and we see most of the action through her eyes. She’s the one who stares out at a party yacht that has docked near her home, where people her age sunbathe and drink and smooch. This only heightens her wish to leave — and also emphasizes the notion that she may live in paradise, but that’s where her dreams will die.
The movie gets its title from the Adriatic name for the moray eel, murina. Early in the movie, a housekeeper is cleaning an eel that Julija and her dad caught earlier in the day. The housekeeper says of the eel, “Look how she bit her own flesh to set herself free.”
Julija, of course, is a kind of murina, ready to do just about anything to set herself free from her father’s hooks.
Unlike many U.S. screenwriters and directors, Kusijanovic isn’t inclined to give the audience a clear answer of Julija’s fate. That will dissatisfy some but thrill others.
So far, critics have come down on the “thrill” side. The movie won the Camera d’Or at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. The award is given to the best film for a first-time director.
The movie is also executive-produced by director Martin Scorsese. And Kusijanovic was able to entice Helen Louvart to come onboard as the cinematographer. She’s a winner of numerous awards at film festivals all over the world. Two of her most films are “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” and “The Lost Daughter.”
“Murina” opens July 15, at the Austin Film Society.