Learning Curve
By Ela Bittencourt

Dir. Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović, Croatia, Kino Lorber

The British psychotherapist Susie Orbach cowrote Understanding Women: A Feminist Psychoanalytic Approach (1986) to underscore the suffering experienced by women when other women perpetuate and enforce the message that men naturally dominate the world. In some way, the main conflict in Orbach’s passionate crusade to heal women was always the mother-daughter relationship. The father’s messaging was encoded so completely he could afford to step back—to rule, so to speak, from behind the stage. Orbach’s main point was that young women were too often caught in the crossfire of double-messaging, being openly told that they could conquer the world, but secretly, on a more intimate level, constantly being bombarded with the opposite notion that emancipation wasn’t possible—men needed to be appeased, catered to, and women needed to learn their place.

A similar tormented family dynamic lies at the heart of Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović’s confident debut feature, Murina. It opens as the 17-year-old Julija (the gracious Gracija Filipovic) and her father, Ante (Leon Lucev), dive into Croatia’s cerulean waters, armed with harpoons. Catching eel, repeated several times throughout the film, is a pleasurable routine for these two. It’s also an unspoken pact, indicating that father and daughter have each other’s back—an implicit trust that, as we learn, has deteriorated, the nature of this codependency acquiring more sinister connotations, signaling the depths of Julija’s inner anguish.

What makes this morning different is the anticipated arrival of a big-shot friend of Julija’s parents, Javier (Cliff Curtis). Javier must be wined and dined with great care, so that Julija’s father can sell him his land to build a resort. In this way, Ante will be able to shake off his ill fortune (and perhaps egregious ineptness, as he seems to be linked to a sea accident that cost men’s lives) and afford moving his family to Zagreb. The stakes are complicated by the fact that Javier harbors a rekindled longing for Julija’s mother, the beautiful, meek Nela (Danica Curcic), which stokes Ante’s ire.

Javier’s visit becomes a crucial character test for Julija. Will she get through the day unscathed? Caught between her admiration for the suave, more cosmopolitan Javier and her resentment for her uncouth, domineering father, will she find a suitable outlet for her anger and outbursts, and learn to persevere? Keenly attuned to the characters’ emotional thermostats, Murina progresses through short, loaded, yet often controlled verbal exchanges (some threats are reduced to a whisper, and words wound in quick jabs) and telling glances. Julija watches Javier gaze longingly at Nela; Nela reluctantly observes her daughter’s undisguised infatuation with Javier; and Ante intently watches them all, always ready to make a pompous show of his brotherly affection for Javier, whom he desperately needs to close out the deal, or to suddenly lash out.

The film frames masculinity as endless, at times excruciating showmanship. In one scene, Ante deliberately steers his boat over shallow waters and treacherous massive rocks, against Julija’s vociferous protests (Javier and Ante appear to have a long, knotty history, suggesting that Ante worked for Javier’s father, and wrecked a boat once, and then likely got fired—though these details are dim enough for the scene to come through more as an ongoing pissing contest). Kusijanović articulates poignantly the heartbreak of familial love crudely bound up in the performance of power. This sense is keen when Ante insists that Julija entertain the guests at the dinner feting Javier by reciting a poem Ante wrote for her. The brief scene is skin-crawling, its discomfiture spreading from Julija’s shy resistance (“they don’t want to hear it”) to the close-up of Javier being taken aback (perhaps recognizing that the show of female love and subservience is meant primarily for him) to the embarrassment felt by Nela, maybe because she’s painfully reminded of similar acts of adoration that Ante had extorted from her. Julija recites the poem with a cool composure that fully registers her unwillingness to be part of the farce. Watching this scene, I couldn’t help but recall Cordelia ordered to profess her love for her father in King Lear. Whereas Cordelia refuses, with tragic consequences, Julija mirthlessly plods on, but her sullenness makes it clear that she’s no fool; she knows when she’s being used as a pawn. If we can’t muster as much pity for the petty Ante as we do for Lear, it’s because Ante is more stooge than king, and ultimately learns nothing about the women he torments or his own ego.

Javier, on the other hand, is a far more nuanced take on manliness with a ruthless edge. He’s no stranger to Ante’s bullish boys’ club—in fact, he cheerfully plays the part, alluding at the dinner to their past "wild adventures” that seem reserved for men’s ears only. Yet he’s a romantic, evident in the gorgeous, sun-filled scene in which he, Julija, and Nela dance on the boat’s deck to a soapy Italian pop song while tipsy, Ante off somewhere catching big fish—a carefree fantasia of recaptured love and idealized nuclear family that shatters immediately when Ante reemerges like some scowling sea monster. Javier is also a father stand-in for Julija, whose attitude towards him betrays a complex mixture of sexual desire and a purer yearning to be understood, coddled, and shielded from cruelty. Javier nudges Julija to admit that she’s trapped on the island and charms her with the idea of an Ivy League education, and with it, intellectual, emotional freedom. But in these fantasies, there’s always a fine line between the “hook”—dangling glowing prospects before the mesmerized Julija—and what Javier might be willing or even reasonably expected to provide. Still, Kusijanović constructs Javier’s character with lucidity, never pushing him into the menacing stance so typical of Ante, while not sugarcoating the ways in which his appearance on the island might reveal his own self-interest.

Kusijanović and Frank Graziano’s screenplay is eloquent about the murky, double-message entanglements that Orbach found so necessary to address in psychotherapy workshops. Julija’s stance towards her mother, and with it, towards her own femininity, is highly charged, as evidenced from the early scene in which Nela tries on a dress (she wants to pick the most flattering one to please Javier) and Julija’s says bitterly, “You’ll wear what dad tells you, anyway.” Julija resents the games her mother plays, whether she’s forced to or chooses to—a critical distinction that the two constantly fight over in the film: at one point, Nela says to Julija about her father’s angry outburst, “You did this to us,” revealing just how tightly guilt and victimhood are bound up in each other.

Hélène Louvart’s sentient, sensitive camera picks up on subtle gestures and emotional gradients. As is often the case with her work, this sensitivity starts at the level of color. In Murina, Javier gifts Julija a metallic-blue one-piece swimming suit, which glistens on her slim, sporty body, like a siren’s liquid armor. At the party in Javier’s honor, both mother and daughter wear dresses with blue accents. Nela chooses for Julija a long-sleeved dress that covers her sun-browned arms, an odd choice for hot weather, while her own gently envelops her slim figure, with opened buttons in the front. While Nela doesn’t want to provoke her husband, always careful about his leering ways, she seems to want to seduce Javier, and so isn’t immune to the pleasure of flirting, or to jealousy. If Nela is a tragic figure, it’s perhaps in her contradictory instincts and unenviable arithmetic: her grim bet seems to be on a loveless but steady relationship with a violent man rather than a passionate but possibly brief romance with a more fitting match.

Female sexuality as bait is one of the film’s recurring motifs. At the party, Javier and Ante go so far as to state this in fishing terms (“You caught the best one”). Meanwhile Ante calls Julija “a beast,” a reductive term meant to demoralize and defeminize her, while he never stops making it felt that her maturing into a woman is dangerous. The ever-perceptive Julija bristles at the constant trading in her mother’s charms. And yet, in a later scene, when Julija’s desperation to leave the island reaches its apex, she makes a cutting comment to Nela about Nela’s sexuality: “If I had your power, I’d use it.” The heartbreaking line acknowledges that Julija has internalized the veiled messaging over the years—the idea that sexual power is women’s only true calling card—a stance that transmits powerlessness precisely by delineating, and delimiting, power so perversely and cruelly.

Despite its essentially polemical, feminist nature, Murina can be surprisingly understated, leaving viewers ample room to breathe. Louvart translates the sunlit Arcadia of the Croatian coast into subtler transmutations of blueness, tempered by shadows. When Javier and Julija go diving deep to test her mettle and catch sight of a mythical blue light, they find no such revelation—though they do see a mysterious wreck caught in the sea floor. A similar understatement carries over into the setting. The locations mostly de-emphasize the picturesque qualities of the coast. Instead, the terrain seems scraggly, at times uninhabitable. The scene in which Julija steps over numerous small stones with her bare feet as she returns home after a fight is intensely tactile—one can feel the hot sharpness under her feet. In the end, Julija must carve out her space more modestly, without being bailed out by Javier. In a key scene, she’s guided out of a sepulchral cavern with the help of a dim bluish light of her flashlight, a visual metaphor that stresses her overall arc of teenage rebellion maturing into stern resolve. And though Kusijanović doesn’t suggest a clear way out of Julija’s entrapment, her young heroine has already done something therapeutic. While she has lashed out to no avail, it’s true, she’s also tested the boundaries of her relationship with powerful men—the limits of her reliance on them, as well as the limits of her allegiance to womanhood as placidly set out by her mother.

Murina was the Opening Night selection for Museum of the Moving Image's First Look 2022.