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Early in this movie, its teenage protagonist Julija (Gracija Filipović) watches an older woman in her family kitchen cleaning a fish she just caught with her dad. “Look how she bit her own flesh to set herself free,” the old woman observes. In a sense, that statement sums up this quietly startling film directed by Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović.

Julija’s relationship with her father, Ante, is fraught. It seems as if Ante’s relationship with everyone in his life is fraught. They live with Nela, Julija’s mom, on a scenic Croatian island. It’s all sloping landscapes, old stone buildings, blue water, and blue sky. A yacht of partying young people has docked near the family’s house, and Ante (a grizzled, bearded Leon Lucev) curses them out. Cursing people out seems his default mode of communication.

The coming evening is a special one. Ante is eager to welcome his old friend Javier (Cliff Curtis), a master of industry and wheeler-dealer of the first stripe, to dinner. He hopes to sell his land to “Javi” and quit the spear-fishing life (the movie’s title is a word for a Mediterranean moray eel) for an apartment in Zagreb. Julija, for all intents and purposes a kind of mermaid, bristles at the notion of life away from the sea.

Both her mother and father take exception to her walking around the house and its grounds in her white one-piece bathing suit. Ante makes an offensive remark, mother Nela (Danica Curcic) tells Julija she’s “naked.” The statuesque Filipović plays a young woman who’s fairly unselfconscious of her body despite being at an age where everyone else seems unable NOT to notice it (including one of the mooks on the party yacht). And when the rugged, worldly Javier arrives, he notices it too.

Not in anything like an overtly creepy way. But as his visit goes on, Julija learns about the past shared not just by Javier and Ante, but Nela as well. Rooting through Javier’s travel bag, she is bemused to find a copy of Business Week with Javier as the cover star in it. She discovers a potentially more unsettling object as well. Her interactions with the adult trio only stoke her rebelliousness, punching and poking at her sense of self. While she loves the water, she can’t really take her family anymore. And as Ante experiences her increasing disdain for him, he himself grows increasingly brutal.

Kusijanović and cinematographer Hélène Louvart share an acute eye for landscapes; this widescreen film is best appreciated on as expansive a screen as possible. "Murina" is a slow burn of a movie, one that doesn’t end in a detonation but with an enigma. Nevertheless, it’s one of the more coherent and satisfying narrative releases of the year.

Now playing in select theaters.

Glenn Kenny

Glenn Kenny was the chief film critic of Premiere magazine for almost half of its existence. He has written for a host of other publications and resides in Brooklyn. Read his answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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