Director Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović could be forgiven for thinking she is dreaming. Her debut feature, Murina (2021), was executive produced by Martin Scorsese, and won the Caméra d’Or Award for Best First Feature at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. The young Croatian director, born in the southern town of Dubrovnik, now resides in New York. This dream-like beginning to her filmmaking career results from holding onto the energy and desire she brought to America when she was only 21 years old.
“I tried hard to understand my place in this industry and what types of stories I wanted to tell,” she remembers. “When the chance came to make Murina, my uncle said, ‘Listen, you’ve worked so hard, now is the last mile. What you need to do is remember the desire and energy you had when you first moved to New York, before you went through the storm, and make the film with that attitude.'” Kusijanović tells me it was the best advice she has been given.
The inspiration for Murina comes from the director’s memories of Croatian island life, and her desire to honour the actress Gracija Filipović, who played the 13-year-old Julija in her 2017 short film, Into the Blue. “I grew up with my great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother – these strong, amazing women,” she says. “I spent the summer holidays on the island visiting my grandmother [the island of Koločep near Dubrovnik], three months a year, and from these visuals, I created a story for a short film in which I cast Gracija.” She adds, “It was a formative experience to make that film, and I realised Gracija needed to be honoured by the long form. So I quickly started writing the feature for her before she fully steps into adulthood and changes.”
Kusijanović believes films are not written, they’re found. Into the Blue and Murina share themes and ideas of violence, control, patriarchy, and the family dynamic. She continues exploring her film-evoking discoveries by reimagining Murina in this thematic template.
Into the Blue follows a wife who runs away from her abusive husband, taking her 13-year-old daughter with her. On an island they once called home [the film is set on the island of Hvar, in the Kornati archipelago], the teenager encounters disappointment when she reunites with a childhood friend. In Murina, 16-year-old Julija attempts to replace her controlling and abusive father, Ante (Leon Lucev), with his best friend Javier (Cliff Curtis), who is visiting to discuss a business investment. When Julija learns that her mother, Nela (Danica Curcic), chose Ante over Javier, she hopes the family friend will be their saviour.
Unlike Into the Blue, which explores the relationship between internalised and externalised violence, Kusijanović shifts the focus for her feature debut. Julija is suffocated by her father’s claustrophobic violence, but in response, the director is drawn to exploring the strength of her character’s adolescent stubbornness or resilience that Javier slyly encourages.
Approaching a crossroads in her life, soon Julija’s resilience will start to fade. She needs to use the twilight of her adolescence to empower herself to have the courage to escape her father’s shadow. Nela, who chose freely between Ante and Javier, is a prisoner of her choice. She’s a warning for her daughter to make wiser choices and to protect her independence, now and in the future. Throughout Murina, the insidiousness of patriarchal control is suffocating and effectively juxtaposed with the sun-baked coast and shimmering blue ocean.
Murina begins with Ante and Julija on the boat fishing for eels, a metaphor for the besieged teenager. The hope she has in Javier leads to her disappointment, and while it hurts, the disappointment is necessary to understand that she can’t look to others to help or save her.
“It takes time for us to understand and hopefully use our powers,” observes Kusijanović. “It’s not by accident that a metaphor for a little girl trapped like that is an eel because the characteristic of an eel is to find a way out when blocked. Julija doesn’t yet know that she has that characteristic. She continues, “I don’t know how it is in nature – when the little eel is born, does the mother eel tell her she’s never going to be lost because you’re an eel, and you can always find a crack between the rocks to wriggle out? I hope the big eel tells the small eel that because that’s how it should be. Julija doesn’t have that endorsement from her family because giving her that freedom would mean [symbolically] castrating the father; castrating that type of manhood that’s about having and owing, rather than building.”
Murina‘s picturesque landscape captivates, but its beauty is spoilt by the characters, who pollute it with violence, oppression, chauvinism, and patriarchy. Kusijanović exposes humanity’s unattractiveness in the bright sunlight, on and beneath the surface of the clear blue ocean. “…[V]iolence does not only happen in dark alleys – it happens everywhere. Violence is not reserved for a certain social class, for a certain country, or certain weather,” she declares. “It’s interesting because people always say, ‘It’s so picturesque; it’s so beautiful.” I don’t feel that at all [laughs]. I understand why audiences think that, but for me, Murina feels claustrophobic and uninhabitable.”
“It was a challenge because the place is picturesque – it’s gorgeous. It’s full of tourists, parties, and yachts, so we had to keep that out of frame. We tried not to portray the picturesque because we didn’t want it to confuse you emotionally about what’s happening.”
It’s impossible to be successful if this were her intent. An image can be picturesque and spoilt by ugliness at the same time. Audiences will decide for themselves which is the dominant force, but there’s no denying the emotional angst that unsettles the picturesque island, creating a friction. Are these toxic characters a metaphor for nature’s shadow, which can be as hostile to humans as we are to nature?
“A month after summer has passed, it’s no longer picturesque – it’s a hard life for the islanders,” says Kusijanović. “It’s hard because of the wet and the cold, the humidity, the wind, and the salt – it gets in your bones and stays there until the next summer when it dries out.”
Beneath Julija’s hardship, she embodies the director’s optimism about the resilience of the human spirit. “I didn’t make Murina only for women or women of a certain age. It’s for anyone that needs and wants to implement change in their lives through the resilience that they once knew as young adults before they were formed into thinking a certain way by politics and education. From that resilience and strength, you can cast yourself into any of your desires.”