Murina is a seaside Croatian sensation

Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović's debut feature offers a dreamlike coming-of-age story set against the stunning Dalmatian coast

Murina is a seaside Croatian sensation
Gracija Filipovic in Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović’s Murina. Photo: Kino Lorber

The story of a princess locked in a tower waiting for a rescuing knight can be found in everything from the Brothers Grimm to Monty Python. Rarely has the setting been as gorgeous in its specificity as in Murina, the first feature from Croatian director Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović.

Julija (Gracija Filipovic) is bored teen eager to bust out of her sleepy, rocky island along the Dalmatian Coast. How her parents Ante (Leon Lucev) and Nela (Danica Curcic) ended up there, and what they do for a living, remains a bit vague. It seems like Ante, with Julija aiding him, sustains the family by spear-fishing moray eels (the Murinas of the title), but it also feels like their cliffside home, with plenty of room for al fresco dining, is some kind of inn. There’s a hazy, dream-like quality to this movie, with backstory only rolling in in refreshing waves. Maybe they just swim all day, and somehow get by?

But it’s only Julija, really, that seems to delight in the easy access to the lapping, turquoise water of the Adriatic. Filipovic spends most of the movie in a bathing suit and barefoot, never a wince on her face as she races along pebbles and stones. (What was casting this role like? No one with sensitive soles should apply?) Ante is preoccupied with being a corrosive, insecure jerk at every turn, humiliating his daughter for God knows what purpose. Nela medicates herself with “this will all get better soon” lies, and maintains a constantly clenched stomach.

The hope is that a visiting old friend, Javi (Cliff Curtis), will be bring salvation. Javi and Ante are “old friends” (the specifics of whose relationship are teased out rather slowly) and now he’s a zillionaire on the cover of Bloomberg Business Week. Ante owns land nearby—half an undeveloped island. He hopes to convince the owner of the other half (a capricious old man) to allow Javi to buy it; it’s just a few hours from Italy, could be converted to a resort, and is rich in natural splendor. (Indeed, if you forget your lunch on the boat, you can scoop up sea urchins for a snack in no time, as our gang does one afternoon.)

For Ante, this deal is redemption for what he sees as an act of injustice that came his way years ago. For Nela, it means moving to Zagreb and the family restarting their lives. For Julija, she’s skeptical that money will do anything but make her parents behave even worse, but now that she’s seen Javi again (and as a maturing young woman) she’s begun to wonder if he could be her ticket to a different life.

And why does Javi stay friends with Ante, a Fredo Corleone-esque loser with a short fuse who takes his rage out on his helpless daughter? It doesn’t take long to see Javi’s been pining for Nela, even while he’s been in Switzerland and New York making his fortune.

Summarized thusly Murina sounds like a soap opera, but that’s not the movie’s vibe at all. For starters, it is shot by Hélène Louvart, whose work on The Lost Daughter and The Beaches of Agnes means that, in an unexpected way, this is a completion of a “women at a turning point on the shore” trilogy. Jokes aside, the look (and sound) of Murina are mesmerizing. A scene at a monument for fallen firefighters is one of those moments that really crystalizes the film, and can only come from a director’s personal familiarity with the location.

There are also sequences of nerve-wracking intensity. The long nights of drinking and dining that eventually turn to arguments are like microscopic Tennessee Williams plays, but there are also lengthy dialogue-free stretches of our lead character alone in the elements. Indeed, this talky arthouse drama becomes a full-on adventure picture at times.

Murina boasts Martin Scorsese as an executive producer, which, in this case, seems to be the great director lending his name to help with visibility. If it gets more people to check this remarkable debut out, then his is a job well done. The press notes indicate that Kusijanović has relocated from Dubrovnik to New York, so perhaps we’ll see her working with larger budgets and more mainstream stars on a next project. Not that there’s anything lacking in this first outing.

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