Synopsis: In an isolated mountain village in 19th century Macedonia, a young girl is kidnapped and then transformed into a witch by an ancient spirit.
Stars: Sara Klimoska, Anamaria Marinca, Alice Englert, Noomi Rapace, Carloto Cotta, Félix Maritaud
Director: Goran Stolevski
Running Length: 108 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: A number of the light and airy-fairy tales that populate the Disney canon of animated films originate from much darker versions of German writers in the 18th century. While they maintained much of the original work’s outline and general moral intent, these sanitized versions essentially drained the bedtime stories of their cautionary messages for children and adults alike. In recent years, the restoration of, or modern twists on, these classics for audiences have been hailed as bold or brave and, in many cases, have earned those high marks with distinction. What interests me even more than these films is the storytelling going on from scribes creating original pieces with strong parallels with the types of spooky tales handed down from generation to generation.
A strong sense of storytelling is just one of the chief reasons why You Won’t Be Alone, from Macedonian director Goran Stolevski, is such a treat. Set in the 19th century in a remote hamlet on the broad side of an imposing mountain range, there’s a relaxed, naturalistic aesthetic that could easily classify it in the much-studied folk-horror genre. The isolation of the period and place are felt quite effectively from the start by the filmmaker’s dramatically impressive use of the gorgeous elements of the location surroundings. Throughout its run time, Stolevski’s film covers more ground than is typical or expected, asking striking questions about life, death, and our humanity even as we are gripped by not knowing what may happen next.
At first, you might think you’re watching some version of a tale as old as time. An overwrought mother turns her back on her newborn for a moment, and when she looks again, a horrific figure looms over the child. It’s Old Maid Maria (the excellent Anamaria Marinca, Europa Report), a witch cursed to roam the area, shapeshifting into various creatures she kills or comes upon. (How she does this is a process not for the faint of heart…) Maria’s curdled flesh and sharp fingernails crave the child’s blood, but the mother makes a bargain to spare the baby until she’s 16, after which Maria may return and take her as her own. After all, Maria can’t go through life alone. Requiring some sacrifice, the witch takes the baby’s tongue to stop her crying and from ever speaking. Though the mother tries to hide her child on holy ground, a witch’s bond will out, and after 16 years, Nevena (Sara Klimoska) joins her new guardian in a vagabond life, ostracized from the community.
Already isolated her entire life (ala Rapunzel), Nevena uses her shapeshifting abilities to infiltrate another community to learn how to be human first, a witch second. These experiences, as both genders, give her insight into the different feelings going on inside the bodies of men and women, children and adults. Nearly all her thoughts are communicated to us in voiceover, often in simple terms but gradually growing into whole ideas that encapsulate her complete understanding of a lived life. Conveying all of these discoveries is challenging enough for one person, and while Klimoska handles the bulk of it with wide-eyed amazement, she “shares” the role with Alice Englert (Beautiful Creatures), Noomi Rapace (The Secrets We Keep), and Carloto Cotta (Frankie), each is striking a somber balance in their cycles with the witch.
It could be that others come to You Won’t Be Alone thinking it’s an all-out horror film, and they’ll likely be disappointed it’s not some witch in the woods scare-fest. I still found elements of the movie quite frightening, but not for reasons you might think. There’s a lot of sadness here, like Rapace’s rather devastating but finely tuned performance, which starts feral but becomes more controlled as she’s taken under the wing of a kindly older woman. Cotta is strong too as the male the witch inhabits, first to find out what it’s like to experience pleasure but then to discover the more private and tender moments.
I’ve been thinking about You Won’t Be Alone ever since I saw it; the rich characters (Marinca’s sinister witch has, like most witches, a tragic backstory) and invested performances coupled with the picturesque setting push this one far ahead of most of the other movies I’ve seen so far this year. You have to give it some space to get moving, but only slightly. Stolevski’s feature film debut is assured, and a can’t miss effort for filmgoers apt to enjoy a scary story before turning the lights off at night.