Review: Life Through the Eyes of a Witch in ‘You Won’t Be Alone’

It may be a counter reaction to our increasingly digital reality, but lately horror movies have increasingly looked to primitive pasts to resurrect the rituals and fears of folktales. .

It’s a striking global trend, spanning puritanical New England (“The Witch”), rural Iceland (“Lamb”), North Dublin (“You Are Not My Mother”) and the pagan cults of Sweden. (“Midsommar”). The best of these movies don’t just resurrect a supernatural force from another time, but adapt the spirit and psychology from which it springs.

Goran Stolevski is an Australian writer-director born and raised in Macedonia. And in his feature debut, ‘You Won’t Be Alone,’ he drew inspiration from old regional witch tales to create a spellbinding immersion in a distant, fantastical 19th-century Macedonian kingdom that nevertheless throbs with a strange existentialism. and timeless. . If you’re imagining brooms, don’t. We are no longer in Kansas.

“You Won’t Be Alone,” which debuts in theaters Friday, begins with a visit from a 200-year-old witch (a brilliant Anamaria Marinca). She is known as Old Maid Maria or Wolf-Eateress, and her face is pockmarked with fire that would not consume her. She came to fetch a peasant girl’s granddaughter, Nevena. The mother begs to let her raise the child until she is 16, a deal which Maria makes by cutting out the child’s tongue. After trying to hide Nevena all her life in a cave with a natural skylight above, Maria comes looking for her, arriving in the form of a crow.

This is not a computer-generated transformation, nor the ones that follow. The shapeshifting continues throughout “You Won’t Be Alone” but is still seen naturally and somewhat mysteriously. This is done in cut.

When Maria leads Nevena (Sara Klimoska) out of the cave, it’s one of the most bizarre baptisms in the world that a person can do. So far, she knew little more than a small pile of dead leaves. Annoyed by the sun, the bucolic environment and her new captor, Nevena marvels at the world she has not understood, nor at her place in it. In voiceovers reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s films, Nevena’s half-formed words — she calls Maria “Witch-Mama” and herself “Me-the-Witch” — struggle to make sense. “I, am I demons?

Maria begins to raise Nevena as a sort of protege but her lessons are brutal. Seeing Nevena playing with a rabbit, Maria picks it up, breaks its neck and says, “Blood, not toys.” But Maria quickly becomes frustrated with her witch student. Tired of motherhood, she turns into a wolf and leaves Nevena alone at the edge of a forest stream.

Nevena is left to wander the countryside, where her unusual point of view provides an outsider’s perspective on humanity. She might as well be an alien disguised as a human. What she sees delights and horrifies her. Nevena soon realizes that she too can transform. After accidentally killing a peasant girl (Noomi Rapace), she uses her sharp black fingernails to grab inside the woman and stuff them into a cavity in her chest.

“What isn’t strange?” she reflects. Well, the branded interiors certainly are. But “You Won’t Be Alone” – not exactly a horror movie – is much more concerned with using the young witch’s innocent but deadly vision to examine life. She’s a witchy anthropologist, and her transformations from body to body—a beautiful young woman, a young man, a dog, a child—give her many windows from which to look. As a woman in the male-dominated society, she remarks that when women are around men, “the mouth, it never opens”. But when the women are alone, the conversation flows. “The mouth, it stays open.”

There are ruminations here not only about gender restrictions, but about parenthood, abandonment, love, and the shared blood of inheritance. “It’s something that burns and hurts, this world,” she said to herself. The film is so artfully composed that you’d swear it was the work of a more seasoned director (although Stolevski has directed many shorts). Nevena’s various iterations start to feel more episodic than deep. But “You Won’t Be Alone” enchants with its fresh perspective and the unquenchable curiosity of its changing protagonist. The once stereotypical witch has never felt so captivating and elastic.

“You Won’t Be Alone”, a Focus Features release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for violence and gore, sexual content, graphic nudity and sexual assault. In Macedonian with subtitles. Duration: 108 minutes. Three out of four stars.

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Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP

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