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Martin Scorsese must be asked to lend his name to films by unknowns all the time. Murina obviously impressed him – he’s on board as an executive producer. It also won the Caméra d’Or, the gong handed out at Cannes to the best film by a debut director.

Antoneta Alamat Kusijanovic is that director and her film is a brilliant, tightly wound study of a family falling apart. It would be ugly if it weren’t set on the coast of Croatia, an idyll where grouchy Ante (Leon Lucev), his pretty wife Nela (Danica Curcic) and their lithe, sporty daughter Julija (Gracija Filipovic) live a simple life, catching fish to eat to supplement their meagre income, a particular prize being the moray eel (murina, in Croatian), valued for its tasty flesh.

Kusijanovic opens the film with Ante and Julija diving below the waves and chasing one down in a protracted subaquatic sequence showing how well father and daughter work together. But back above water everything is different – him ordering her about, bawling at her, treating her as a skivvy. Back home, in whispered conspiratorial tones Julija complains to her mother about Ante’s relentless barking, and is then barked at again, this time for walking around “naked” in front of one of Ante’s friends, who has ogled Julija in her form-hugging swimsuit, her work clothes.

Perhaps some of Ante’s curmudgeonliness can be explained by the impending arrival of Javier, a handsome rich man whose boat Ante used to captain years before, until a “something happened” which ended the relationship. Ante wangs on about a particular wine that Javier likes – we must get some – and declares that Javier is a “god on earth”. Which seems a bit much.

It turns out there is more to this visit than just old acquaintances catching up, eating fresh fish and drinking good wine in the evening sun. Ante wants to sell his land so he can move to Zagreb and sees Javier as a prospective buyer. After all, who wouldn’t want to live in this paradise?

Enter Javier (Cliff Curtis), and the two embrace like old friends, or so it seems to Ante, a man disinclined to notice things that are obvious to anyone else watching, in particular Julija, through whose watchful eyes events play out.

Javier and Julija
Javier and Julija

Things Ante hasn’t noticed include: that his relationship with Javier is still servant to master. That his daughter is no longer a girl – she has a body like a young Ursula Andress, for god’s sake – and that Javier and his wife have something going on, or did, and maybe will again.

In a series of tense scenes Kusijanovic and co-writer Frank Graziano send these four characters out on a boat together for a powerplay quadrille, every utterance, every glass raised in salutation, every mock fight, or larky dance heavy with layers of subtext. Complicating things even more is Julija’s re-appraisal of Javier, who she treated with disdain at first but gradually comes to see as a replacement father, perhaps, or a potential lover. “You look at him like you love him,” her mother hisses in one of a handful of scenes where authority ebbs and flows, and Julija turns out to have more of it than she’d hitherto realised.

There are touches of films like Dead Calm or Polanski’s Knife in the Water, with poor Leon Lucev getting the most thankless role as bad guy Ante, while Javier – as a representative of the globalist metropolitan elite, you’d have thought he’d be the fall guy – sails through relatively unscathed. It’s a very good performance by Filipovic, who flicks from girlish to flirty young woman and back to child with skill. Though it’s Curcic who has the hardest role, as Nela, a woman who would rather love her husband and stay with him, but who is reaching breaking point.

Tense tense tense, though for the most part it’s a case of the surface seeming as placid as Julija’s imperturbable expression. But it’s all thrashing away beneath, which Kusijanovic makes explicit in climactic scenes hard to watch if you’ve ever had a nightmare about swimming in the dark through water-filled tunnels.

Enough said. Great film.

Murina – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

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