When she was growing up in Croatia, Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović would often spend summers with her grandparents on an island in the Adriatic Sea, an experience “that really informed my childhood,” she says. Years later, as she was pursuing a Master’s degree in film at Columbia University, a simple image came to her: the deep blue of the sea thrust against a summer sky. It would form the backdrop for the island-set “Into the Blue,” a short film that earned Kusijanović a nomination for a Student Academy Award.
With her feature debut, “Murina,” which premieres in the Directors’ Fortnight section of the Cannes Film Festival, Kusijanović returns to the same idyllic, sun-flushed setting, as well as to many of the themes that preoccupied her in “Into the Blue,” which centers on a strong-willed girl raised by a difficult, overbearing father. “We are always drawn to the same dynamics,” she said. “We always think that we are making something new, and then six months later, we realize that we wrote the same idea that we wrote before.”
On a subconscious level, “Into the Blue” planted the seed for her first feature; after winning prizes at the Berlin and Sarajevo film festivals and earning the Oscar nod, it also made it easier to finance “Murina,” with Rodrigo Teixeira’s RT Features, Martin Scorsese’s Sikelia Prods. and Croatian production company Antitalent coming on board to produce.
“Murina” follows the rising tensions between the restless teenager Julija, played by Gracija Filipović, and her oppressive father Ante (Leon Lučev), which come to a head when an old family friend (Cliff Curtis) arrives at their island home to broker a life-changing property deal. Over the course of a weekend fueled by violence and desire, Julija gets a taste of freedom that could alter the family’s fate.
Kusijanović is interested in exploring how desires, long submerged, can find a way of kicking to the surface later in life. “We call ‘coming of age’ some hormonal phase of our teens, but I question whether that’s when it happens,” she says.
In “Murina,” Julija’s mother, Nela (Danica Curcic), is coming to terms with “the choices she’s made so far, what are her options, and can she really liberate herself as a woman, if it’s not too late,” says the director. Ante, who still harbors bitterness toward his friend over an old slight, is facing a reckoning long deferred.
Meanwhile Javier, a swaggering jet-setter, seems unwilling or unable to handle the prospect of seeing his desires thwarted. “The only adult among them is the child. They are coming of age, not her,” says Kusijanović. “She’s looking for an anchor, a savior, in all of them.”
Born and raised in Dubrovnik — “a tiny city surrounded by walls” — Kusijanović didn’t always have ambitions to be a filmmaker. Still, a creative spirit reined throughout her childhood. “From morning to night, we were completely set free. All the play came from imagination,” she says. Often she and her friends would stage plays for the neighbors. “I think that we were all directing since we [learned to] walk.”
Kusijanović studied acting for more than a decade before she decided to become a producer. But after seven years, “I realized that I want to tell my own stories.” She went to Columbia to study screenwriting and discovered that she had a wider range of cinematic tools to bring to the table.
Despite such an auspicious start to her career, Kusijanović describes directing as a learning process. “Every film is an organism in itself. You never know where it’s going to bring you,” she says. “As much as I love planning, I also like to stay open, because everything always happens better than I planned.”