Unsettling tale of Old World witchery is sympathetic fable of assimilation
You Won’t Be Alone
Starring Noomi Rapice, Alice Englert and Sara Klimoska
Directed by Goran Stolevski
How to Watch: In theaters April 1, 2022
Since prehistory, witches have been regarded, rebuffed and reviled as fearsomely mysterious, magical women whose powers made them a real threat to the order of the world.
And long before they were turned into Halloween costumes, sitcoms and cartoons,
witches and witchcraft were staples of lore and legend dating back into the B.C. era, even appearing in the Old Testament of the Bible. A trio of witches in Shakespeare’s MacBeth, written in the 1600s, famously warned that “something wicked that way comes.” In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy encounters two wicked witches and one fairy-like “good” one. Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer and Susan Sarandon were The Witches of Eastwick; Better Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy stirred up laughs in Hocus Pocus. Elizabeth Montgomery turned wizardry into twinkly weekly primetime pixie dust in TV’s Bewitched, and Melissa Joan Hart was Sabrina, the Teenage Witch.
The deep-rooted “sisterhood” of sorcery is at the tortured heart of this wild, devilishly mesmerizing tale of witchcraft set in the Balkans some five centuries ago. It follows one witch “spirit” as she passes through several human (and non-human) bodies.
And it for sure isn’t a sitcom. The story begins when a baby named Nivena is whisked away by her freaked-out mother to live out an extremely sheltered childhood: She’s imprisoned in a deep, dark rock abyss to hide her from Old Maria, the terrifying necromancer of local legend who visited the newborn soon after birth and chewed off the baby’s tongue for some black-magic mojo. Mom is obsessed about keeping her little girl secluded from the evil always lurking somewhere out there.
And it works for a while—until, 16 years later, Old Maria returns to claim Nivena, now grown into a young woman, and usher her into full-blown witch-hood.
You think you know a lot about witches? How they ride on brooms, keep black cats for companions and cackle as they stir boiling cauldrons? Well, not in this movie, where witches—all victims of some ancient, passed-on curse—must kill and drink blood to survive, a dietary requirement that doesn’t make them necessarily welcome, at least for long, around other people. They regenerate by taking the bodily forms of their victims, and a special two-step process (a searing rip into the chest by the black talons of a witch’s hand, followed by witch’s spit) mean you’re officially into the club. To hasten the transition from one body into a new victim’s body, witches remove their own innards, like unpacking an old suitcase once you’ve arrived at your destination. Being a witch involves a good bit of blood and guts, gristle and self-inflicted de-boweling.
You probably never imagined Sabrina, Samantha on Bewitched or Harry Potter’s Hermione Granger doing anything like that.
Almost feral after spending her childhood in a hole, and not being able to talk, Nivena (Sara Klimoska, a young Macedonian actress) doesn’t realize, especially at first, that she’s a witch. She has no understanding of the rough life she’ll face on a hard road she didn’t choose; forever a social outcast and outsider, feared, persecuted and often burned alive unless she conceals her identity. But she’ll learn.
“Just you wait,” her witch-mother, Old Maria (British actress Anamaria Marinca), tells her. “Just you wait.”
One of the things she’ll learn is how she’s been bestowed with a cursed immortality; death may be perhaps unpleasant, but it’s not much of a deterrent. Incinerated in the flames of a pyre as a young woman, Old Maria became the stuff of hysteria and cautionary folktales—the child-plucking Wolf-Eatress—who continues to roam the Balkan countryside in her carcass of charred, scarred, ooey-gooey flesh.
First-time feature writer/director Goran Stolevski was born in the Balkans himself (before relocating to Australia), and the film is steeped in the folktales, and the scenery, of the region during a rather dark and dismal time. It depicts a pastoral place that was especially rough for women, who mostly lived to serve their husbands, in every way—that is, if they weren’t getting raped, beaten or otherwise reminded of their lowly station in the social order. Maybe that’s why witches were such agitators: They were women with shadowy, secretive connections to the natural and supernatural world, and powerful enough to turn the tables and bring down almost anyone, even the strongest of men.
The dialogue is spoken entirely in the authentic “old” Macedonian language of its setting (subtitled into English for American audiences). We hear the inner thoughts of Nivena—who is unable to speak—as stream-of-consciousness bits of inner monologues, which are sometimes quite profound. As she explores everything around her, it’s all new—grass, trees, fields, sunlight, streams of water, tears and laughter. She marvels at every moment of discovery, struggling to figure out what’s what. “Are sparrows snakes? Women wasps? Kisses chains?” she wonders. “Me, devils?”
A lot of viewers will find all of it too challenging, too gory, too dreary, too artsy. Unsettling without being particularly scary, it’s not a spookfest meant to shock, but more an exploration, an existential expedition into what witch like might have been like. As the witch progresses through various incarnations, Nivena takes the form of a woman who’s just given birth (Noomi Rapace, the Swedish actress who starred in the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), a handsome farm boy, a cat, a dog, a donkey and finally a little girl, who grows up to become a young peasant woman (British actress Alice Englert), marrying and bringing her story full circle. Her witch mother, Maria, keeps popping in, mainly to tell her what a bad job she’s doing. Sometimes you wonder which witch is which.
And you gradually come to realize that You Won’t Be Alone isn’t just about witches. It’s a somewhat sympathetic tale of curiosity, enlightenment and exploration, a gritty parable about a woman who wants to be something else, something more, while being burdened less; a woman who became who (and what) she is because of something beyond her control, who wants most of all to be accepted. In an odd way, it’s about life and living and what it means to be fully alive, and the arc of reinvention. It’s a tale of assimilation and integration built around a most unlikely subject, but one with which many people can relate—certainly women everywhere, who’ve been treated as outliers throughout much of history.
It’s a fright-fest fable with a uniquely feminist streak of scariness, an international cast, and a good bit of witchy weirdness. The world can be a harsh and unforgiving place, especially when you’re always outside looking in—or when your destiny takes a dark, unholy detour.
For anyone who’s grown up looking to witches for silly chills…well, just you wait: This hypnotic, horrific dive into the Old World disturbia is the stuff of nightmares. And if you it leaves you unsettled and a bit adrift in the terrors of something beyond the veil of modern comprehension, well, like the title says, you won’t be alone.