Gracija Filipovic stars as Julija in Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović's Murina; courtesy of Kino Lorber

“Paradise is where dreams go to die.” That line appears midway through Murina, a provocative drama set along the stunning Croatian coastline. It cuts deeper than intended. Sure, the pebble beaches and sun-kissed Adriatic landscapes are beautiful, but they can feel like a prison when someone is stuck there and has no choice but to watch wealthy vacationers come and go as they please. In her feature debut, director Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović captures that kind of townie ennui, deepening it through complex, flawed characters who barely understand how they hurt and disappoint each other. If there is a specificity to each relationship, then Kusijanović adds broader appeal through a feminist streak that only becomes fiercer and angrier.

When we first meet teenage Julija (Gracija Filipovic) and her father, Ante (Leon Lučev), they are underwater and armed with harpoons. They are hunting “murina,” the Croatian word for moray eel, a delicacy. At first, Kusijanović films the scene with the kind of tranquility that suggests maybe they are on vacation. But the body language reveals tension between them, a wordless argument that carries over when they surface again. Julija is sullen because Ante is a psychologically abusive father, the kind of man who insults his family as a consolation prize for lifelong disappointments. While Julija dreams of escape, her mother, Nela (Danica Curcic), is more resigned and forgiving about her husband’s nature.

The off kilter father-daughter pair  are hunting because they have an important visitor: Ante’s childhood friend Javier (Cliff Curtis) arrives via yacht, dangling a land deal over Ante’s head. Instead of terrorizing his family, Ante is obsequious around Javier, doing everything he can to make the deal happen, while Julija watches him with disgust. Kusijanović observes these four over Javier’s multi-day visit, devoting enough time to each relationship so we can understand the meaning behind every complement, slight, and tantrum.

Murina is keenly aware of the way appearances can be deceptive. At the start of the film, you might wonder how Julija can be so unhappy in such a beautiful place, and by the end Kusijanović convincingly suggests anywhere with her father is hell on earth. The setting is not the only deceptive appearance. Julija and Nela’s good looks are a significant plot point because it creates a stark difference between Ante and Javier: Julija’s father constantly tells her she is ugly and ordinary, but Javier announces shortly after his arrival that both mother and daughter are great beauties. Javier is the sort of man who is kind and generous, but only when it is convenient for him, and Kusijanović wisely reveals Javier’s ulterior motive slowly, through one indirect detail after another.

The language barrier is where we see the limits to Javier’s carefree veneer. You may recognize Curtis because he has been a Hollywood character actor for decades, so it’s perhaps surprising he appears in a European art film (roughly half the film is in English). Still, his presence is crucial because Javier does not speak any Croatian (the two men met while Javier was vacationing in Croatia), leading to awkward scenes where Ante and Julija argue about him while he sits at the same table. Javier does not care that he does not understand, leading to a hand-off, aloof attitude toward the family that only makes him more attractive to Ante’s wife and daughter. Kusijanović is perceptive about how age and experience inform that appeal: While Nela allows herself fleeting moments of feeling wanted by another man, Julija latches onto him as a way to escape her father’s clutches.

All the performances are seemingly effortless, a mix of deliberate body language and guarded emotion. Filipovic plays Julija as a young girl who internalizes her father’s nasty comments, and looks for ways she can break free of them. At one point, Ante tells her she has boyish shoulders, and Filipovic moves them awkwardly in the next scene, unsure how to carry herself after she’s made to feel so worthless. Curcic has the trickier role since Nela tolerates Ante up to a point, having learned to navigate his rage, even if it means leaving her daughter vulnerable. Lučev’s performance might be thankless, but it is also the most important. He is ingratiating in one moment, furious seconds later, almost like a child. By the time he pushes Julija toward outright defiance, it comes as a relief, a feeling that would not be possible without Lučev committing to being a singular asshole.

Murina is the kind of drama that has shades of film noir. Like noir, it depicts our capacity for ugliness, although in this case the setting and production design are meant to be ironic. Instead of shadows and urban decay, the characters opt for revealing beachwear in nonstop sunlight. That familiar structure also allows Kusijanović to create many layers of subtext, with social class the most important among them. Croatia has become a popular tourist destination recently, perhaps leading to a sense of resentment among people like Ante. The trend has a slightly different effect on Julija: she does not see economic opportunity, but possibility beyond her home, leading to impasse between and her father. In an ordinary noir, that impasse might resolve with violence. Murina opts for something more satisfying because, at long last, Julija wordlessly shows her father just how small he really is.

YouTube video

Murina opens at AFI Silver on July 15.