(4/5) A haunting and atmospheric coming-of-age tale set in the Croatian oceanside.
Murina, winner of the Caméra d'Or (Best First Film) at Cannes Film Festival 2021 and slated to release in the US next week, is a sleek and stirring coming-of-age tale, set on the enchanting and ethereal Croatian coastline. We are introduced to the pensive and reserved Julija (Gracija Filipović), who feels most at home underwater and has a rebellious edge, her father Ante (Leon Lučev), and her mother Nela (Danica Čurčić). At first glance, it seems this family leads a serene existence by the glittering blue of the sea, but a dark undercurrent quickly emerges in their dynamic.
Ante is abnormally controlling, even cruel, to his wife and daughter, with particular menace shown towards Julija. What on the surface looks like a picturesque island existence is in fact a young girl and her mother, living in isolation, stuck in an abusive household. Through lush and atmospheric sequences of the family out on the water, captivatingly shot by DP Hélène Louvart, we come to understand Julija’s inner turmoil. She wistfully gazes at a lively party boat, full of young people drinking and dancing, and it’s evident she’s daydreaming of another life, inching towards rebellion and away from her father’s isolating and domineering grasp.
The tensions between Julija and her parents are soon amplified with the arrival of the charming and charismatic Javier (Cliff Curtis), a childhood friend of Ante and Nela. Ante has invited him to visit with the desperate hope that Javier, now a very wealthy real estate mogul, will purchase some of his land for a hotel. To make matters ripe with secrecy and danger, Javier once had a thing with Nela, seems to still be in love with her, and is also very enamored with Julija, in a way that teeters creepily between romantic and fatherly. Javier is the catalyst that brings the unspoken disdain between Julija and her parents to the surface. What ensues is a weekend brimming with tension and an increasingly complicated dynamic.
Julija quickly puts the pieces together, seeing the way Javier looks at her mother, and she begins to foresee an escape plan, one in which Javier whisks them both away from the island to start a new life. As Ante observes Nela and Julija becoming closer and closer with Javier, his abuse becomes more rampant. He feels progressively emasculated by Javier’s presence, but he also needs Javier to buy his land. Their power dynamic is fascinatingly parallelled with the nuanced mother-daughter dynamic between Nela and Julija. Nela has a genuine love for her daughter, but she’s also complicit in her daughter’s abuse, often scolding Julija for “provoking” Ante. Nela is beautiful and traditionally feminine, with Julija even remarking “if I had your power, I would use it,” an undertone of jealousy fueling their dynamic.
It would be easy for these four to be caricatures: the evil father, the mother who’s a helpless victim, and Javier, the knight in shining armor who comes to rescue Nela and Julija from the bad guy, a charming example that there are good men too. But Kusijanović never lets the script fall into these contrivances, and the film brilliantly subverts these archetypes. Despite Julija believing that Javier is her knight, the man who can rescue her and her mother and give them a new life, Javier is ultimately revealed to be a man full of empty promises. He sees the abuse firsthand, with Julija eventually begging and pleading with him to take her away from her home, yet he is unaffected by her pleas, offering only to put her and her mother up in a hotel room for a few nights, refusing to take them with him.
It’s a damning moment of realization for Julija - a man who appeared as the savior of her problems is no better than her father. With this, she learns no one will save her but herself from the destiny her father has imposed on her, living forever in isolation under his abusive thumb. Through Julija’s rebellion comes an escalating awareness of her own power. Murina, with a rich and complex dynamic among its ensemble and an immersive setting that is both captivating and terrifyingly isolated, is a chilling and memorable coming-of-age story. Julija’s journey is both a dark and illuminating path to self-discovery.