Witches make for great villains in horror films. From a creepy ballet instructor to a shadowy hermitess in the woods, there is no shortage of scary sorceresses and baby-snatchers on the silver screen. In Goran Stolevski’s debut feature film, You Won’t Be Alone (2022), the witches lean more toward the latter (baby-snatchers) than the former, as the film is grounded in witchcraft mythology. Stolevski does a brilliant job mixing Eastern European lore surrounding witches with themes of identity, solitude, gender, and fate.
You Won’t Be Alone begins in 19th-century Macedonia, where local villagers fear for the safety of their children due to the unseen presence of a “Wolf-Eatress” (a witch). When a horribly burned witch named Maria (Anamaria Marinca) comes to steal a child from a local woman, the mother pleads with Maria to wait. She promises that Maria can have her daughter, Nevena, when she turns 16. Maria silently agrees, but takes the newborn child’s voice in exchange, rendering the child mute for life.
Over the next 16 years, the mother raises Nevena (Sara Klimoska) in a secluded cavern, completely isolated from the rest of the world. All that Nevena understands of life is what she can see in the cave and the stories her mother tells her. On the day of Nevena’s 16 birthday, a large bird appears. Nevena’s mother knows that it is Maria in disguise, so she attempts to scare it away, only to be killed by the witch. Unbeknownst to Nevena, Maria takes on the appearance of her mother. Now, Nevena’s “mother” leads her out of the cave and into the world.
Nevena struggles with sensory and informational overload as she follows Maria across the countryside. Maria comes across a donkey, which she kills. She proceeds to scratch Nevena’s chest with one of her talons and spit donkey blood on the wound. This turns the young girl into a witch, giving her talons of her own. Nevena soon learns that, using the entrails of another living creature, Maria can take on the form of other humans and animals. She even sees Maria’s true form as a horribly burned, disfigured woman, but continues following her nonetheless.
Maria tries to teach Nevena that she must kill animals and drink their blood to survive, but Nevena’s peaceful nature is resistant to it. Frustrated with her naivety, Maria abandons Nevena to fend for herself. However, Maria warns Nevena that she can never live among normal humans, as they will always despise her.
In spite of Maria’s warning, Nevena enters a village and happens upon a baby in a barn. When the mother, Basilka (Noomi Rapace), encounters Nevena, she attacks her. The ensuing fight results in Basilka’s death. Using the same method learned from Maria, Nevena takes on the body and life of Basilka. The other men and women of the village think that Basilka has gone mad, as she behaves strangely and can no longer speak.
Living as Basilka, Nevena learns how to do basic chores around the village and tries to adapt to life as a regular human. She takes note of the difference in treatment between men and women. When Nevena’s husband attempts to have violent sex with her, she kills him, removes Basilka’s entrails (returning to her true form), and flees the village.
This leads Nevena on a far-reaching journey, from which she learns more and more about the world. At various times, she takes the form of a dog, a young girl, and an adult man. During her experiences, she even learns about the history that created the Wolf-Eatress known as Maria, whose desperation for a husband and child inadvertently led to her turning into a witch and being burned at the stake (though she survived).
This gives Nevena a better understanding of Maria’s bitterness towards humans. Maria continues to lurk in the shadows, observing Nevena’s actions. When Nevena encounters a young man who also appears to be a mute, the two fall in love and Nevena becomes pregnant. Maria’s jealousy threatens Nevena’s life and happiness, as Nevena realizes that Maria will never stop tormenting her.
You Won’t Be Alone offers an entirely new kind of witch film that is still heavily grounded in the myths and lore that have existed for centuries. From infancy, Nevena and Maria’s fates are intertwined, and Nevena has no choice but to live her life as an outsider. She fulfills the role of a reliable, albeit naive and silent protagonist. She must express herself through mimicry and physical gestures, all while attempting to assimilate into a world that dismisses her for being a woman, a mute, and a secret “Wolf-Eatress.”
The narrative forces Nevena to see the world through various eyes, observing how she is treated based on the body she assumes. She enjoys the pleasure of sex as both a man and a woman. More importantly, she experiences the stark contrast in power and treatment of men, women, and children. This is most evident when she becomes a man and sees that the inherent misogyny of 19th-century Macedonia no longer affects her. When embodying a man, Nevena can simply live life and choose his own path. As a woman (and as a young girl), Nevena must bend to the will of the men around her. Even as a dog, her experience is largely better than that of a human woman.
This might make it seem as though director Goran Stolevski hits audiences over the head with the critique of patriarchy and misogyny. Fortunately, these themes arise so naturally from the narrative that they never draw you out of the film. They are made even more powerful because Nevena cannot respond to her treatment, good or bad, at least not with words. She just silently observes and experiences through the eyes of the body that she has taken.
Until meeting a man who shares the quality of being a mute, Nevena also lives in desperate solitude. She makes weak attempts to befriend others, but her strange behavior and inability to express herself make her an odd character wherever she goes. This is not to say that people do not take her in and treat her well at times, but her status as a mute witch always makes her feel like the “other” — a fact that Maria never lets her forget.
Thus far, I have largely avoided the term “horror” to talk about You Won’t Be Alone, as the film focuses far more on its dramatic elements. It functions more as a contemplative, mythical story bound to the realities of the human experience. This is not to say that there are not horrific moments. Maria’s appearance alone is frightening, to say nothing of her ambivalent feelings toward humans and her jealousy of Nevena’s “successes.” The title, though it sounds reassuring, actually reminds us that You Won’t Be Alone is a horror film at its core. It certainly doesn’t feel like most horror films you’ve seen, with jump scares and foreboding music, but Maria’s persistence in following Nevena and attempting to ruin any chance at happiness for her makes the title, and the film, all the more horrific.
In closing, You Won’t Be Alone is by far one of the best films of 2022 and perhaps the best debut feature film of a director from the last decade. It doesn’t need heavy-handed dialogue to tell a compelling story. Instead, it relies on intimate moments and, at times, shocking visuals to express extremely complex themes rooted in the human experience, including the many barriers that keep us from living in peace.
Rating: ★★★★½ out of 5
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