One of the hottest under-the-radar titles to emerge out of the 2021 Cannes Film Festival was Dubrovnik-born filmmaker Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović’s feature debut “Murina.” The film came to the Directors’ Fortnight with the imprimatur of executive producer Martin Scorsese and came out winning the Camera d’Or, the festival’s top prize for a first feature. With those recommendations, it’s baffling to find a murky, vaguely sinister, but ultimately dreary coming-of-age film about a young woman’s blossoming sexuality under the spell of her mother’s old flame.
“Murina” sticks to familiarly opaque arthouse beats despite a dazzling symphonic opening sequence. And what an arresting sequence that opening is: In the capable hands of cinematographer Hélène Louvart (“The Lost Daughter,” “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”), the film fades into an underwater shot of a rippling, cyan Mediterranean surface. It’s set to a stir of strings(from composers Evgueni and Sacha Galperine) that build toward a moment that feels like a cinematic overture. We then see two people, a father and a daughter, plunge deep into the water armed with fishing spears, shimmying to the seafloor to capture murina, the moray eels native to the region.
Above the surface of the water, 16-year-old Julija’s (a stony Gracija Filipovic) life seems idyllic, suspended in one of those shimmering, endless summers that only seem to exist in European cinema. In their sleepy Croatian fishing town, Julija and her young mother Nela (Danica Curcic), who barely looks 10 years older than her daughter, live a simple life guided by their ancestral tradition of catching eels and wiling away sun-bleached days on their boat. Hovering over their halcyon ways is the imperious presence of their rough-around-the-edges, psychologically abusive patriarch Ante (Leon Lucev).
The arrival of family friend Javier (Cliff Curtis, the New Zealand actor who supplies much of the film’s English dialogue) throws their tenuous equilibrium wildly out of orbit. Past romantic vibes between Javier and Nela bubble up, while Javier takes an obvious interest in the virginal Julija, forming a fraught triad that pits mother and daughter against each other as Nela starts behaving like a jealous girlfriend. Ante, meanwhile, holds Julija’s academic future over her head, and keeps a too-tight grasp on her thoughts and doings at all times.
Filipovic’s carefully calibrated, always-under-the-surface performance keeps the dynamic from spilling into the volcanic catharsis that this understated movie might need. She sulks around their village not saying much because her spirit is squelched and afraid. Javier brings some intrigue, including a challenge to find an elusive “blue light” in the sea (a metaphor, and one that doesn’t have much gas). He does share a piece of lore about a boy who swam from one island to another to become a man; that becomes a tantalizing source of inspiration for Filipovic, and one that gets realized in a moving coda at the film’s end.
On dry land Louvart’s camera chronicles events without much mediation, letting the drama unfold on a wide-lens canvas and often from a few steps back from the subjects. Beneath the surface of the water is when things get literally murky. Sequences plunging us into the sea become so dark it’s hard to tell what’s going on — especially during a harrowing third-act moment that finds Julija flailing for her life in a watery chamber — and they mostly elicit a shrug in addition to pure confusion. (To be sure, this is a film best seen on a big screen.)
Following up her 2017 short film “Into the Blue,” Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović takes some bold swings to uncover the ancestral chauvinism rooted in this society, but vaguely schematic characters don’t make Julija’s submersion into the uncharted waters of adulthood a compelling sit. Still, Kusijanović clearly has a vision (she wrote the film with Frank Graziano but conceived the story herself) that, with a meatier screenplay, could build to an exciting next effort.
“Murina” world-premiered at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival in Directors’ Fortnight before playing the Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.