‘Unclenching the Fists’ and ‘Murina’ Reviews: Cannes Dramas Explore Women’s Struggles for Control

Cannes 2021: Many films at this year’s festival have engaged in a multifaceted conversation about young women around the globe trying to find some agency in their own lives

Unclenching the Fists and Murina
"Unclenching the Fists": Cannes Film Festival / "Murina": Directors Fortnight

One of the intriguing aspects of any film festival is the way conversations can develop between films that may have been made in completely different circumstances and countries — how themes can cut across regions and genres and a multifaceted dialogue can spring up even if none of the filmmakers knew they were getting into it.

At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, one of the conversations that has developed is about young women trying to find a place for themselves in environments that afford them little or no agency in their own lives. We’ve seen that theme given a mystical spin in the Costa Rican drama “Clara Sola” and a naturalistic one in the African film “Lingui, the Sacred Bonds.” It’s even surfaced in Charlotte Gainsbourg’s documentary about her mother, Jane Birkin, “Jane by Charlotte,” in Joanna Hogg’s “The Souvenir Part II” and in Joachim Trier’s “The Worst Person in the World.”

Of those films, most are by female directors. And on Saturday, two more films were added to that list: Russian director Kira Kovalenko’s “Unclenching the Firsts,” from the Un Certain Regard section, and Croatian director Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović’s “Murina,” in the Directors Fortnight sidebar.

Both deal with young women chafing under the restrictions of a domineering father, and struggling to find a way out; both give us vivid and complicated heroines whose fate is left up in the air, though the way they approach the possibility of freedom is strikingly different.

And both come from regions wracked by conflicts in recent decades. “Unclenching the Fists,” in fact, is haunted by violence in the North Caucasus region of the Russian Federation: Its lead character, a young woman named Ada (acting student Milana Aguzarova), is literally marked by what she refers to as “the school hostage crisis” in her past — we see scars on her stomach and she knows that she’s incontinent and requires another operation that her father, Zaur, doesn’t want her to have.

But then, Zaur doesn’t want her to have anything that might help her become independent. He holds the only key to the apartment where she lives with him and with a teenage younger brother, Dakko, who clings to her in a way that sometimes seems infantile and sometimes almost hysterically sexual; her father has also hidden her passport, refuses to let her wear makeup or perfume and essentially keeps her prisoner.

If Ada isn’t being scrutinized and controlled by her father, she’s being pestered by Dakko or by a local boy who might want to be her boyfriend or might just want to have sex with her. All the men in her life are essentially and sometimes literally grabbing her, grasping at her and refusing to let her go.

Cast mostly with amateur actors, the film is a dark slice of neorealism with a palpable sense of claustrophobia that Ada feels in her life and in her family. But her relationship to what is essentially imprisonment is odd and complex; she seems desperate to get out and exercise some control of her life, but there are strange cracks in that desperation, signs that she’s terrified of what even a modicum of freedom and control might bring. Her older brother, Akim, at one point insists to his father that Ada needs to heal, but one of the most striking things about this evocative and disturbing film is that we’re never even sure she’s capable of allowing herself to heal.

In “Murina,” the father-daughter conflict plays out in a shiny and more upscale setting. In recent years, young female directors from the Balkan states have made a string of impressive films haunted by the wars that consumed that region in the 1990s — among them, Blerta Zeqiri’s “The Marriage,” Antoneta Kastrati’s “Zana” and Jasmila Zbanic’s “Quo Vadis, Aida?” — but first-time Croatian director Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović stays away from the reverberations of those conflicts; she’s more concerned with the wars within the family.

Julija (Gracija Filipovic) is a teenage girl who lives on an idyllic coastline where her father (Leon Lucev) owns land that he’s hoping to sell to Javier (Cliff Curtis), a wealthy former employer (and sometimes friend) so that he can make a big score and move to Zagreb. Domineering and under tremendous stress as the potential sale approaches, her father barks orders at Julija and her mother (Danica Curcic); mom goes along and makes excuses for his behavior. “He needs this,” she says. “If he gets this deal, he’ll be calmer.”

“If he gets money, he’ll be worse,” says Julija, who wears a perpetual look of sullen annoyance that seems entirely warranted every time her father opens his mouth.

In that setting, the urbane Javier seems to Julija to be everything her dad is not: open-minded, encouraging of her desires to leave her constricted life, supportive rather than dismissive. It isn’t that simple, of course, and every character has his or her turn to be the guilty party in this round-robin warfare that can get exhausting and repetitive. But “Murina” also gives Filipovic room to shine as Julija, and it uses the blue ocean and sun-dappled shores to paint a vivid picture of a troubled paradise.

The film also gives its heroine a pair of dramatic signposts on her travels — the opening one-shot from beneath the surface of the ocean looking up toward the sky, the final one-shot from far above looking down at the surface. It’s just one of Cannes’ many journeys by young women through an inhospitable world.

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