Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Murina is an appealing example of a certain kind of first feature (director Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović previously made a handful of shorts) that combines fervent ideas, literary-style symbolism, and an enthusiasm—almost a hunger—for transforming idiosyncratic locations and people into cinematic landscapes. (It would make an interesting double bill with Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter, with which is shares those qualities, a seaside setting, and cinematographer Hélène Louvart.) There’s naïveté here, and occasional bluntness, but the result is a watery, beguiling dream.
We see things through the eyes of 17-year-old Julija (Gracija Filipović), who lives with her parents at a rambling place on the Croatian coast; this weekend, the father’s old friend, Javier (Cliff Curtis), now an internationally-known mogul of some kind, is visiting, with a development deal—something about creating a vulgar resort in this unspoiled place—hanging in the balance. The deal that could make Julija’s father, Ante (Leon Lučev, the formidable truck driver from The Load), very rich. Complicating the weekend is a boating disaster that tested the men’s friendship in the past, and the fact that Javier used to be in love with Julija’s mother Nela (Danica Kurcić). Kusijanović has underscored this scenario with fairy-tale echoes: The father is an ogre who locks his daughter up in the castle, the girl is a mermaid who must fight through various channels and chambers (the movie is sexual without having any sex in it), and many key moments take place underwater, where Julija toys with murderous impulses and shows off her expertise at nailing eels with her speargun.
At times Kusijanović plays her hand too baldly, as when a housekeeper notes that a captured eel has bitten herself in an attempt to escape her prison (Julija has also sustained a scratch in the same encounter). Overall, though, the sinister mood is impressively maintained, suggesting that Kusijanović has studied Polanski and Antonioni and digested them thoroughly; we feel edgy even when violence isn’t an immediate threat. The scrubby coastline is no scenic postcard but a living, mysterious force, above the water and below it. It’s a gorgeous location, although the more the film goes on the more it resembles a Twilight Zone episode where the place is revealed to be a purgatory from which no one can escape.
And a technical point: There are shots in the film, of Julija swimming on the surface, that have a curious quality, which I assume must be due to the use of drone cameras—the camera is close to the water but there’s no visible wake, giving the movement a disembodied quality. The film’s final image (which returns after the final credits, by the way) is also a drone shot, which allows for the unusual effect of seeing someone paddling hard while getting nowhere. Murina has enough of those moments, passages of real uncertainty and ambiguity, to sustain its sun-soaked vision of torment.
Murina opens at the Northwest Film Forum on July 27.
July 22, 2022
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.