The Indiana Slavic department is co-sponsoring a series of films with the Ryder and our colleagues at REEI over the next several weeks. Yesterday was the 2021 film Murina, which we have on our list as a Croatian film though it is really an international co-production (executive produced by Martin Scorsese) with a good deal of Croatian in it, including the director (Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović), two of the main actors (Gracija Filipović and Leon Lučev), and the location, which is never quite specified in detail but appears to be in southern Dalmatia. I waited in vain to the very end for a note in the credits to say where exactly they filmed it (with beautiful shots of the landscape above and below the water throughout by Hélène Louvart). The film is subtle, however, and there might have been more explicit markers regarding the setting that I missed.

Nevertheless, the depth of the water suggests the southern Adriatic (the north is nowhere near that deep), while the striking closing shot of the single swimmer (the main character, Julija) backstroking through the open sea (kulaf!), a stray reference to booking a room in Dubrovnik, and the claim, made by Ante (Lučev), that Italy is four hours “that way” all give us a pretty good sense of the setting. The water is clear blues and greens, the surface sun-baked white stone. The environment is the opposite, in a sense, of what Barry Lopez describes in his Arctic Dreams as an “irritatingly uncooperative” nature that points out “the narrow impetuosity of Western schedules.” Here in this other sea, by contrast, everything feels familiar, and time itself seems to adjust to us rather than we to it, filling in around our edges like water around a stone pier. Nature accommodates not just the impetuosity of our schedules but of our whims and manias, our grudges, our daydreams.

This is a central part of the film, it seems to me, a thematized aspect of the setting, which the visitor Javier refers to as paradise but which has other, more troubling levels beyond the superficial one that he seems to see. As Nela, Ante’s wife, tells her daughter Julija, who has made Javier into something of a knightly figure, someone who will rescue her from the tower in which her parents have imprisoned her, “he [Javier] will forget us as soon as he steps onto the plane.”

Julija is not just a metaphorical maiden in a tower. At one point, she is locked in a portion of their old stone fortress of a house, in a sort of cellar that also looks out from above onto a beach. There she opens a window and gazes down — I emphasize the upness and downness here because they lend historical depth to the trope the filmmakers have adopted. A religious procession is passing, at the end of which walks Javier and her parents. She calls out to him from behind the bars of her window, but he doesn’t hear over the processional music. It is a fine reference to the woman in the window, with Julija in the position of the maiden who needs saving.

Her idealization of Javier is just that. He is no knight. He will not save her. She will save herself, undermining the tower in the process, by diving — her passion, we know by now — into the rocky dark, the foundations of the house (and of patriarchy), slipping through the underwater caverns by following the path of the eel, the murina of the title. This is both a reversal of the old trope and an elegant narrative connector for the film as a whole.

Shaping things and people into what one wants because we have power, because they allow it, because the place and conditions seem to allow it, all come together in a crucible of apparent accommodation. Nela has apparently allowed her husband to decide what sort of life to lead. Julija is apparently to be shaped by her father, a former ship captain who orders her and her mother around like crew members. The land, too, will apparently be shaped, in Ante’s plan, into a resort built with Javier’s money, over the graves of those killed by Ante’s negligence, burned to death in the accident that lost him his captaincy and sequestered them in this accommodating space. But that’s all appearances, the surface of paradise.

Julija says at one point that she doesn’t like not knowing what’s underneath her in the water, and this has been something that has held her in check in the past. The climactic katabasis, from which she emerges to confront her imprisoners, and the closing shot, a backstroke no less, suggests she has put that antipathy to rest.

Up next: EO

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