If Patricia Highsmith had ever written a coming-of-age story set on the rocky, clear-watered Croatian coastline, it might have looked a lot like Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović’s bright, brooding debut, “Murina,” which quietly, with a sinister Adriatic sparkle, makes the compelling case that even without labyrinthine murder plots or hard-bitten private eyes, a young girl’s passage into adulthood can be the perfect, darkly dazzling vehicle for a sunshine noir.
As at home in the water as out of it — in fact the sea is maybe her refuge from more dangerous currents of life on land — Julija (Gracija Filipovic) is the lithe, surly teenage daughter of beautiful, unhappy, trapped Nela (Danica Curcic). The major source of tension in the family is Julija’s controlling, domineering father, Ante (Leon Lucev), the extent of whose abusiveness is hard to gauge, but who certainly expects submission and obedience of his womenfolk, and who diminishes Julija and scorns any ambitions she might have for anything but the future he has planned for her. Julija is beginning to bristle under his despotic rule over the secluded cove where they live their frugal lives. Kusijanović and Frank Graziano’s sharply observant script, brought to scintillating life by DP Hélène Louvart’s gorgeously stopped-down, moody cinematography, is especially attuned to the torpor and frustrations of living everyday life in a place a passing tourist might mistake for paradise.
Julija’s rebellion manifests in small ways. She sulks about having to go spearfishing with Ante, and when he has her recite a poem as an entertainment for his guests, she deliberately omits the line in which she must beg the ocean to return her voyaging father to her. But the chafing also encroaches on her relationship with her mother, whom Julija seems to blame for being with Ante at all. “You’ll just wear whatever he tells you to anyway,” she snaps contemptuously as Nela tries to choose an outfit for the dinner party Ante has arranged, at which Julija herself, much to her visible discomfort, will be forced to wear a dress instead of her standard ensemble of simple bathing suit and salt-mussed hair.
The Electra-complex undercurrents only get stronger with the arrival of the charismatic, wealthy Javier (Cliff Curtis), an old associate of Ante’s who also has a romantic history with Nela. Julija doesn’t seem to know if she’s attracted to Javier as a potential lover or as a potential father figure — she both encourages her mother to return his evident attraction and pursues opportunities to be alone with him herself — but it’s clear that for her, he symbolizes escape, and the bigger life that she’s sure lies in wait for her just over the blue horizon.
“Murina” is rife with symbolism, but it’s a mark of Kusijanović’s command — an astonishing quality for a first-time feature director — that the recurring motifs and metaphors are worn so lightly and feel so organic to the film’s microcosmic universe. The moray fish that gives the film its title, for example, is not only a local delicacy for which Ante and Julija frequently go hunting; it is also a solitary, territorial species, with sharp teeth and a bite that can be toxic to humans. The ocean, too, holds contradictory meanings that tug at the edges of the film like the tides: The glistening expanse shot by Louvart as though it were its own living entity with changeable moods and capricious personality, is Julija’s freedom, but it is also her prison. And like her overbearing father, it provides for her while being eternally, powerfully dangerous.
All this atmosphere, the evocative sound design and the occasional dreamlike underwater sequence make what is quite a Spartan, simply plotted film feel complete, sleekly changeable in different light, like an eel. The uniformly excellent cast breathe life into characters who might on the page seem underdeveloped, with the two women outlining a uniquely strange and strained mother-daughter bond (“One day you will understand all I do for you,” Nela says cryptically to Julija in an unusual flash of temper). And the two men, friends who are really rivals for alpha status, become representative of the differently toxic masculinities that define the patriarchal adult world that Julija is about to enter, and in which Nela has lived for so long: the man who comes wreathed in the glamour of promises he will never keep and then disappears, versus the man who promises nothing but domination and cruelty but stays the course. It is, on this stretch of sunny, spooky, glittery coastline, a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea.