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Resilience is All We Have: Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović on Murina

After cutting her teeth with the Student Academy Award-nominated short film “Into The Blue,” Croatian filmmaker Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović crafted a feature-length project for its striking star Gracija Filipović. Awarded the Caméra d'Or for Best First Feature at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, “Murina” expands on many of the short’s themes, including a meditation of Croatia’s culture of violence and rapidly changing economy. 

The violence in “Murina” is not all physical, however. Set on the idyllic coast of the Adriatic Sea, Kusijanović’s film explores emotional violence, and the violence of the sea itself. Gracija Filipović gives a star-making turn as 17-year-old Julija, who spends her summer diving for eel with her domineering father Ante (Leon Lucev) while longing for the relaxation she sees other teens around her enjoying on their yachts. Their rocky family dynamic shatters after the arrival of Ante’s rich, worldly, and mysterious friend Javier (Cliff Curtis), who also happens to be his ex-boss and the ex-love of his wife Nela (Danica Curcic). A slow burn drama, with beguiling cinematography from Hélène Louvart, “Murina” tackles coming-of-age with a stunning ferocity. 

RogerEbert.com spoke to Kusijanović over Zoom about the difficulty of filmmaking by the sea, the importance of telling stories about violence in idyllic places, and moray eels as a metaphor for youthful resilience. 

Gracija Filipovic plays a character named Julija in both the short “Into The Blue” and “Murina.” Is there a thematic connection between the two characters?

I'm very lazy with coming up with names. That's actually why I didn’t change the name. I did want to honor the short and the connection to it, but I don't think that the character of Julija in the short film and feature is the same one. I did write the feature after I worked on the short film with Gracija because I thought that she is an actress who would soon make a feature and I really wanted to put that on screen before she became fully an adult. So it was my intention to capture a very delicate time of a girl becoming a woman at 15 or 16. The short was not made to finance the feature or as a proof of concept. When I made the short, I didn't have a plan for a feature yet. 

You've been working with Gracija since she was about nine years old. What did you first see in her and what was it like developing a working relationship over so many years?

She was very disciplined. She was ready to work. She was ready to take a long time to develop this character. She had interest in such a work, which I found very fascinating, such a discipline at that age. First I did a music video with her, then we did the short film. After the short film, I started casting with her in the room and writing the feature film for her. So of course, there's many talented children and people I could have worked with, but to develop a project like “Murina,” which is physically and emotionally so complex and difficult to endure, I really wanted somebody with discipline to follow this journey.

The story is filled with a lot of dread and complex emotions and inner turmoil, and yet it's set in this beautiful, idyllic location which is an interesting contrast. What is the importance of the location for the themes you were exploring?

It was intentional to put such a story in some shiny and beautiful utopian setting. It is branded often that violence happens in dark alleys and dirty, ugly places. That's why it's so easy, I think, to omit this equal amount violence in countries like mine. And it's very often mistaken with mentality, you know, like a certain type of language and a certain type of behavior is not violence because nothing can be really violent by the seaside in the sun. It's more of a mentality. That's something that I wanted to shift. But also, I feel that this nature is also very violent. There is no shade, there's no place to hide. It's really like being raw meat. Like flesh burning under the sun. Then even the smallest dynamics have space to grow and to escalate into drama. That's why I think that this setting is such good soil for violence.

In crafting the visual language you worked with Hélène Louvart, who is one of the greatest cinematographers working today. I was really impressed with the way she captured that violence but also with that beautiful, sort of eerie underwater photography. What was your collaborative process with her?

Hélène Louvart is certainly one of the best cinematographers of our time. She's very sensitive and incredibly understanding of the story and the characters and arcs. But her biggest forte is she is able to make very complex things very simple. That is how you want movies to be on the surface, very fluid and simple and flowing. Not being too heavy handed with certain teams and metaphors, so they could somehow resurface later once the movie settles and you will come out of the theater and then those juxtapositions start to connect to each other. That's why I really loved working with her. Also, she's a really great partner on set. This was a very complicated movie to shoot. Shooting underwater is one set of difficulty, but shooting on the water, above the water, and next to the water is equally as complicated. Everything is always moving, whether it is the boat, or the sea, or the actors, or a camera, and everything always moves in a different rhythm. So this was a very challenging, both emotionally and tactically, film to make. She was a great partner.

Do you think moving forward, you would make another film sort of in a similar location? Or do you feel like you've sort of reached your creative sort of maximum in a place like the sea?

I don't believe in reaching creative maximum ever. I mean, I don't believe I could have squeezed everything out of something so visceral and real. Of course, there's more stories to tell. Of course, now, I choose not to tell my second movie in the same way because I'm interested in exploring other things. But I never know whether or when I am going to come back to the same very familiar teams.

I was intrigued by the dynamic between Julija and her father. He is very oppressive and can have bursts of violence, sometimes controlled, but sometimes very violent, and emotional violence, and she seems to try to resist that. But there's also that violence always under the surface, which then obviously explodes towards the end. How did you calibrate that tension between those two performances?

There were a lot of discussions on set and in the writing process, as well as in post about how much violence do we want to show? Do we want to show the violence as it is here, or do we want a more digestible version so it's watchable? We definitely went after this softer version of violence. Speaking to that, often people in Croatia watching the movie say “What is it really about? It's just a regular family. What's the fuss about?” That's when I realized that it was very timely, and so important to make this movie, specifically for those people.

In terms of the two actors and building their dynamic, and their comfort with such violence, we spent a lot of time together. I like to work with actors a lot. So we lived together on an island for over 30 days. We did a lot of physical exercises to bridge that discomfort of physical space, and they are both very tactile, underwater above the water. I wanted that to feel natural to these two characters. As a family, we did a lot of dance; tango, salsa. We did a lot of diving. We even did some sort of wrestling in an acting exercise way. That was the way to approach execution of the physical violence once on set.

One of the recurrent themes I found in the film is the economics of the family, both in their relationships to each other based on money, but also the father trying to sell land to his friend. Can you talk a bit about what you were going for, in terms of, the economics of living?

There's a lot of commentary on a class, yes. Because I come from a country that is incredibly beautiful, that lays on very, very big cultural and historical heritage. In my country, most of the people own the land and own the houses and the apartments they live in. That's one of the reasons why, for so long, this economy has been sustainable, even though it's very small. But in recent years, the people have stopped actually developing their imagination, they've stopped developing culturally, they’ve stopped developing intellectually. The need at this moment is to get rich fast, and the easiest way to do so is to sell what you've inherited. There's definitely eroding inheritance, not for that generation, but for every other generation after it. Not only eroding inheritance, but that is taking away our freedom. 

We have a saying in the old Republic of Dubrovnik, that was the Republic for over 800 years, “Freedom cannot be sold for all the gold of the world.” So somehow metaphorically I was trying to express that which I've always been very moved by, which is what happens if all of the gold of the world could buy this man's land if the gods on earth came, and how easily would one’s ego feed off of that and try to sell their heritage. It is something that it's not only fictional in my film, it's something that happens every day. It's not only weakening our economy, but also it is really short sighted for my country.

Another cultural element to the film is the moray eel hunting. I don't know that I've ever seen it portrayed quite the way you filmed it. What does it mean for the region and what does it mean for the characters?

Moray eel to locals is a delicacy. Going back to the question about the father-daughter dynamic, the father wants to kill this rare animal. This delicacy. He wants to skin her and turn the skin upside down, grill her, to melt its fat into her meat or a foreign one. That is one thing. The other thing is that the moray eel is an animal, but her character, she does not attack, she has her own hidden split places. But once she's endangered, she's going to bite her own flesh to free herself. She's gonna bite of course the predator, but she is going to also bite herself. And Julija is really ready to do the same. She's ready to destroy her family, she's ready to even jeopardize her own life, she's ready to do anything she can to free herself.

When you were developing the script, did you always have the moray eel metaphor at the center? If not, how did you come to think about the character that way?

There's always something I think subconscious that happens. From the beginning I had the name “Murina” in mind. With writing you're following your intuition and then later you realize that certain things are not synchronicity only or serendipity. They've always been there, you just named them now. They just clicked it automatically. So some of the things of course, I was aware of as I was writing, but a lot of things have been so embedded in some collective memories that they surface in the script in such a way.

I also was really interested in the way Julija’s swimsuits are almost their own character. They transform a bit as she transforms towards the end. They almost feel like armor for her. How did you develop the look you wanted for the swimsuits?  

When I was working with my costume designer Amela Baksic, I said to her that I want Julija to get armor from God. I want it to be from an exterior world, of the fabric they've never seen. I wanted it to feel like a second skin, an improved skin, a skin that would give her power and confidence to confront her environment in a way she never had. But, it's so important that it doesn't stand out in a way that is not part of their world. So I wanted to ground it also in Marina. I want it to feel like the skin of an eel. And of course that skin is a foreign skin. It's also an animal skin. It's made of a very thin Japanese neoprene, but it's not Julija’s skin. She needs to get rid of this artificial skin to free herself, especially because it comes from an outsider.

How long did you work with your costume designer on the suits? 

One year. Actually, to be precise, eight months. We were in Croatia and the suit was done between Japan and the US. So we had a lot of fittings and traveling of the suits back and forth. Also Gracija’s body was developing from when we started to when we shot. It was very important for me to keep as much as I could, this childlike body. I wanted her to feel slightly more androgynous. So the suit became more and more and more clothed.

I read that you made this film partially for the 16 year olds that are currently in Croatia, but also for adults to remember the resilience of childhood. Why do you think resilience is so important?

That is all we have. Resilience, having the wisdom and achievements of today without the requisite resilience of a 16 year old is worth nothing. It is so fleeting, it's so hard to keep on that energy and playfulness and childishness in ours, because every day when we wake up, the world is designed to kill exactly that. I remember after living for 15 years in New York, and feeling I was at a little crossroad in my life. I spoke to my grandfather, and he said to me, you need to continue doing everything you've been doing and that you need to remember when you were in the first grade of high school. What did she want? Go with that desire. So that's the best advice anyone ever gave me.

I know audiences in different countries will probably relate differently, but what do you hope people will feel by the time the film is over?

I can answer that question with a little bit more confidence, because I do hear from the audience already. Now the film has been screened in France and the UK. In France, it made over 51,000 Euros, which is a very large number given COVID and it being a Croatian-language film. On a daily basis, I receive emails and messages from people around the world that are connecting to the film, in many fascinating ways. They are talking of their family, of now finally understanding their mother or now finally resolving the conflicts with their father. Somehow even empathizing with that. Remembering, of course, the same resilience they had as a child. I remember people saying to me, “I cried for myself.” That is a very interesting therapeutic thing that you could watch the movie and cry for yourself, not for the character.

That's a really deep connection. I love that.

I was very moved by that. Every time I receive one, no letter feels old. Every time I'm pulled in the same way when somebody writes to me about the movie because I guess that's the goal that I hoped it would achieve.

I also really hope that the film will be received well in the U.S. It is very important for me. I do think it's an important film for us right now. Especially with a lot of shocking things happening in our country right now.

Are there any other directors who are women who may have inspired you to be a filmmaker or whose films you love and think people should seek out?

I love the films of Alice Rohrwacher. I had not known her as a filmmaker for a very long time. The first one I saw was “Lazzaro felice.” That's how I discovered Hélène Louvart. Then I discovered her other films and I felt incredible closeness to her work. I understood these people that she portrayed. I felt that they were close to my people. But also of course, I mean, we can never speak of a woman filmmaker and not speak of Jane Campion because she's the one who truly portrays full bodied woman. Her signature film is “The Piano,” and the fact that the woman there could be an artist and a wife and a mother and violent and betraying and sexual and good and empathic and sensual and rival with her child and surrender to life and surrendered to her desires ... I think that she is a fascinating female character.

"Murina" will be available in limited theaters starting July 8.

Marya E. Gates

Marya E. Gates is a freelance film and culture writer based in Los Angeles and Chicago. She studied Comparative Literature at U.C. Berkeley, and also has an overpriced and underused MFA in Film Production. Other bylines include Moviefone, The Playlist, Crooked Marquee, Nerdist, and Vulture. 

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