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TIFF 2021 Review: Murina – “A confident and stunning debut”

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Image Courtesy of TIFF

Every morning Julija (Gracija Filipovic) goes spearfishing with her father.  Their target during the dives is the murina, the moray eel, a long and lithe fish not perhaps known for its beauty, but no less graceful.  As we are told during the course of the film, it’s also a fish willing to chew off its own flesh in order to free itself.  The animal, desperate to escape from its fate, its trap, will go to extreme lengths.  It’s something with which Julija has more in common than she realizes.

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Julija has what the tourists that come to her seaside village would describe as an idyllic life.  But the teenager, who looks out at the travellers on their fancy boats in their bikinis on their carefree vacations, sees it differently.  She lives under the rule of her oppressive father Ante (Leon Lucev) and her beautiful mother Nela (Danica Curcic) who is also a victim of Ante’s sexist and chauvinistic attitude.  He orders both of them around and often makes unkind comments to his daughter as Nela tries to smooth things over and keep his temper from rearing its ugly head.  While Nela chooses a dress for dinner one night, Julija notes her decision doesn’t mean anything saying to her mother, “You’ll wear what dad tells you to anyway.”

Things are about to change, however, when an old family friend, a handsome and exceedingly successful businessman comes to their island.  Ante is looking to sell Javier (Cliff Curtis) some land for the construction of a resort.  It’s clearly been some time since Julija has seen Javier, and at this stage in her life, she sees his arrival with a fresh set of eyes.  She sees romantic history and potential between Javier and her mother, she sees how he treats them with such distinct kindness, she sees a way out.  As Javier cultivates dreams for Julija’s future, she plots a way to leave her life behind, changing the dynamic within her family as she feels her way closer to freedom.

It’s easy to see why Murina was the winner of the Caméra d’Or at Cannes this year.  Awarded to the best first feature film, director Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović (who also wrote the screenplay with Frank Graziano) has crafted a confident and stunning debut.  Hélène Louvart, an accomplished cinematographer whose work includes 2020’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always as well as films with Agnès Varda and Claire Denis (amongst many others) captures the many water scenes, often technically challenging, with great artistry and beauty.  This is a different type of coming-of-age tale, so effective in communicating how the adult world can’t just be seen in black and white, but more in complicated shades of grey, or in this instance, sea blue.

Martin Scorsese is as an executive producer on this project, something that may help to garner it more notice and attention.  But even without that notable attachment, Murina is a film worth noticing.  A compelling lead performance by Filipović as well as charismatic outing by Cliff Curtis, and strong turns by Curcic and Lučev, bring the director’s vision to mesmerizing life.  Make no mistake, this if a film with a distinctly female perspective.  It’s a lesson in empowerment that demonstrates that even in the disappointment of unfulfilled expectation, a woman must rely on her own strength to rise up.  Oppression is dark and toxic no matter where it occurs, even if that is amongst the beatific backdrop of a sun-filled island.

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