What do you think of when someone says shape-shifting witch from 19th-century Macedonia? If it’s a wide-eyed young woman fascinated and curious about a small farming village, you’d be right. If it’s an old crone with wisps of hair and a vengeful outlook on humanity, you’d also be right. Director Goran Stolevski braids together different elements of humanity, community, and femininity in his unconventional witch movie, You Won’t Be Alone.
The film follows the character Nevena (Sara Klimoska), a young and newly minted witch, as she wanders the countryside of Macedonia with her adoptive and strict witch-mother Maria (Anamaria Marinca). Nevena, sheltered her whole life by her birth mother, looks at the world with curious eyes and an eager heart. Her naïveté and innocence are things that Maria despises, and she is eager to rid Nevena of it like she was.
Unlike Nevena, who is almost ethereally beautiful, Maria has been burned both physically and metaphorically by the world. Her body is covered in burns, and she only has a few strands of grey hair left on her head – a consequence of being a witch, but also of being a woman. Though Maria is cruel, and her acts are villainous, her origins are painfully tragic. The youthful exuberance in Nevena undoubtedly reminds her of her own excitement from so long ago.
The real villain of You Won’t Be Alone, which may or may not surprise you, is the patriarchy. Although the film is firmly fantastical, with Maria and Nevena both able to shapeshift into different people and animals (in a grotesquely fascinating manner), their conflicts are distinctly human and grounded in reality. When Nevena breaks from Maria, tired of her abuse, she explores a village and accidentally kills a peasant, Bosilka (Noomi Rapace). Inhabiting her body, the mute and developmentally-stunted young Nevena is thrown into the body of an adult woman.
As Bosilka, Nevena experiences a bond with her mother-in-law that is, at the very least, less toxic than her relationship with Maria. But she also experiences spousal abuse from the hands of her oafish husband. The starkness between the freedoms of men and women is made evident when Nevena moves on to the body of Boris (Carloto Cotta), who is young and handsome. He is not repressed as Bosilka was and as him, she is able to explore the freedoms and privileges of being a man.
When she finally takes over the body of Biliana (Alice Englert), a young girl from the village who gets fatally injured, she is able to live a life like a normal girl. She has a community of women who nurture her, watch over her, and love her. It’s nothing like her cloistering birth mother or her cruel witch-mother. It’s warm and tender. She doesn’t seek thrills but finds joy in the calm everyday pastoral life of a farmer.
It’s clear that Stolevski is in love with the countryside and his shots of the peaceful forests and fields are moments of beauty. This is often paired with Nevena’s odd lyrical internal monologue. The language spoken is an archaic dialect of Macedonian, and perhaps some things were lost in translation when it came to the English subtitles, but to say there is a learning curve when it comes to Nevena’s speech patterns would be an understatement. Regardless, for Stolevski, who spent summers in the Macedonian wilderness with his grandparents, this decision to focus on the slower rural life is clearly at the beating heart of the film.
But that means there is a missed opportunity. There is a sort of comfort in hetereonormativity and motherhood-equals-life that feels rote. Stolevski does enough to where it doesn’t feel conventional compared to the other characters – Nevena’s husband is nothing like Bosilka’s or Boris – but as a contemporary audience member, it is where the story starts to fall apart a bit. There’s hardly any time spent on Nevena’s experience of sexual assault, a horror that is breezed by in favor of a devotion to the landscape intead. Nevena and Maria are both mothers but the approach to motherhood in the film lacks nuance. You are either a dedicated and self-sacrificial mother, or you’re stifling and selfish. You are either Nevena or Maria.
In many ways, the comparison between Nevena and Maria is not so black and white. Although Maria stalks Nevena from the outskirts of the village, viciously jealous and spiteful, the two women are marked as outsiders still. The superstitious villagers could easily turn on Nevena like they once did to Maria. Similarly, both women become mothers, and despite Maria’s actions, she seems desperate for connection with Nevena, her decades of loneliness a source of her acerbic attitude. Their relationship is the most complex in the film, but there is just not enough of it.
The film’s ending is bittersweet, with so many stones unturned. Those searching for a film to pick up after Robert Eggers‘ The Witch might find themselves disappointed with a sharp tonal and thematic shift. But there’s still much to be appreciated in Stolevski’s debut feature. The lingering shots of nature and wilderness for one, but also his willingness to be adventurous with his storytelling, even if it doesn’t land completely. You Won’t Be Alone is overambitious, but it’s always better to try to overachieve than underachieve, right?
You Won’t Be Alone premiered at Sundance this week and is scheduled to be by Focus Features in theaters on April 1.