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Murina (Film Still)Courtesy of Modern Films

Murina: a Croatian coming-of-age thriller about escaping the patriarchy

Filmmaker Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović talks through her award-winning directorial debut, Murina – a gripping, sun-soaked tale of a teenager on the brink

As a precocious four-year-old in Dubrovnik, Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović would claim to be “an artist from the sea”. Now a humble 36-year-old based in New York, Kusijanović tells me, “I’m definitely not an artist. My mother is an artist, and she taught me that to be an artist, you need to be very special.” Growing up in Croatia, Kusijanović would dive underwater and play with figurines in caves; over Zoom, she describes sunny, sandy Dubrovnik with religious reverence and compares it to the architecture of Rome. “‘Artist’ is such a charged word. I’d hesitate to call myself one.” But she’s definitely from the sea? “‘From the sea’, I keep. I keep ‘from the sea’.”

While Kusijanović denies that she’s an artist, her directorial debut, Murina, won the Camera d’Or at Cannes and was executive produced by Martin Scorsese. A coming-of-age thriller with simmering heat and tension, Murina depicts a teenage girl, Julija (Gracija Filipović), who’s ready to explode. At first, Julija seems to live in the kind of sunny paradise that Adam Sandler would set one of his films in simply for a paid holiday. But Julija’s father, Ante (Leon Lucev), is so controlling over his daughter and wife, Nela (Danica Curcic), the female characters are really stranded in an idyllic prison.

Whatever dreams Nela once had, those have faded away. If Ante had his way, Julija would also remain on the island forever to maintain his properties, and after one fierce argument, he temporarily padlocks his daughter in a basement. To passing tourists, they appear to be a loving household; on closer inspection, they’re a textbook example of patriarchy and toxic masculinity in motion. “It’s a very common situation,” Kusijanović says with a sigh. “When Croatians watch this film, they say, ‘But what happens? This is just a normal family. Nothing is going on in this film.’”

What destabilises the already fragile family unit is the arrival of a wealthy businessman, David (Cliff Curtis). Wishing to strike a lucrative deal with his childhood friend, Ante instructs Julija to play the role of a perfect daughter who can recite poetry at will. Conflict arises, though, in that Nela was once romantically involved with David, and then everyone notices that David pays extra attention to Julija’s blue, revealing bathing suit. Well, everyone except the 17-year-old girl herself.

“Julija’s very natural in her skin, like an eel,” Kusijanović explains. “She doesn’t use her body like a tool. But when a foreign person comes to the house, the father thinks her body needs to be protected and covered.” Once aware that shameless men keep eyeing her up, Julija recognises that one of them could help her escape the island. “It’s the male gaze. It’s not naturally how she is. It’s developed through other people’s input.”

Although Kusijanović grew up in similar geographical conditions to Julija, she insists that Murina, which she co-wrote, isn’t autobiographical. “I was raised by very strong, confident women who were artists,” she says. “That’s why my notion of feminism came late in life. I didn’t have to differentiate myself from men within my family. I discovered the reality of that later.”

Due to the lack of female filmmakers in Croatia, Kusijanović didn’t perceive directing as a viable option when she was Julija’s age. Instead, Kusijanović studied theatre production in Zagreb and then completed a filmmaking MFA at Columbia University. She reacts with mock horror when I ask about her earliest IMDb credit: as a line producer’s assistant on Movie 43, a star-studded comedy that’s widely regarded as one of the worst films of all time. Kusijanović still hasn’t seen it. “It was fun, shooting with Kate Winslet and Hugh Jackman,” she says. “But I realised I didn’t want to be a producer. It felt so far from what I felt filmmaking was.”

After directing Into the Blue, a 2017 short also starring Filipović as a frustrated teenage girl, Kusijanović received funding from RT Features and Martin Scorsese’s Sikelia Productions to flesh out the story into Murina. “I met Marty on my birthday,” Kusijanović says. “We spent three hours chatting about life, films, actors, passion, and the energy of being on a set.” During postproduction, Scorsese would watch cuts and offer feedback. “His notes were minimal, but he knew the dialogue off by heart when we spoke. He told me that everybody is the master of their own film. Because you spend the most time on it, no one can really tell you what to do.”

Another recognisable name is Hélène Louvart, the cinematographer whose credits include Beach Rats, The Beaches of Agnès, and The Lost Daughter (which may as well have “beach” in the title). Together, Kusijanović and Louvart agreed that Murina shouldn’t be lensed like a postcard. “Hélène would always say that we need to show it’s a hard beach. It’s a difficult place to survive.”

Perhaps the harsh reflection is why Murina has, according to Kusijanović, polarised the Croatian public. While some local cinemagoers have complained about a lack of plot, Kusijanović also receives emails from women and girls who claim it’s the first time they’ve witnessed their father portrayed on screen and that it’s inspired them to reshape their life. However, Kusijanović fears that any societal change will be slow. “That’s why I made the film. We have a very closed mentality. Croatia is 99 per cent Croatian and 99 per cent Catholic. Even marrying outside the culture can seem outrageous.”

Talking to me in early April, Kusijanović is in Texas to prep for a second feature, this one also a drama concerning a mother and a daughter: “Murina is about female protagonists who are oppressed by exterior elements like chauvinism, isolation, and this island, but these next two women are oppressed by elements within themselves.” As she’s the artist from the sea, will her next few films also involve water? “No, it’s not my theme. Only if I make Aquaman or something.”

In Murina, a particularly striking, poetic image is when Julija swims off on her own into the sea, framed by the camera as a small, bobbing figure heading out into a vast, eternal blueness. I tell Kusijanović that it reminds me of the death scene in Gravity when George Clooney calmly floats off into space. “But I don’t think Julija will die,” Kusijanović responds. “That last image was to remind you of the resilience you have as a child. She doesn’t know where she’s going, but we hope she’ll arrive somewhere.”

She adds, “I think it’s wonderful when a character is restrained. When you can’t speak, when you can’t communicate, when you can’t move, when you’re socially bound to move a certain way and say certain things. If I could shoot on Mars and the Moon, I would like that. But I can’t. So I have to go underwater.”

Murina is released in cinemas nationwide on 8 April, with Q&A screenings with the director this weekend. Find out more details here.