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Witches in folklore tend to be outsiders who, whether self-exiled or cast out, look at the communities they’ve left with scorn and/or envy. Not so the protagonist of Goran Stolevski’s You Won’t Be Alone, who, having never known social bonds before, slowly assembles her understanding of humanity with something like awe.
A film that begins with a shaky footing but grows more convincing each time its subject takes a challenging new step, it contains horrors but is not at all a horror film: It’s for viewers who care about ancient folklore and myths for their own sake and their meaning as archetypes, instead of asking, “how can this be used to transform a simple genre story into an arthouse hit?”
You Won’t Be Alone
Noomi Rapace is listed first in fest catalog credits and featured prominently in key art, but she’s just one of a few actors playing the role, and gets far from the most screen time. We meet the witch as an ordinary human infant, recently born to an angry woman in a 19th-century Macedonian village. The mother is visited by a frightening figure whose body is covered in scars — sometimes called a “wolf-eateress,” she is known in local lore as Old Maid Maria. She wants to take the baby.
The mother bargains, asking to keep her child until her 16th birthday. Then, foolishly believing she can trick the old witch, she hides her daughter in a sacred cave, where she grows up feral. High up in the cave, a hole offers a glimpse of sky and sun. By the time the girl’s a teen, we suspect that patch of blue has nourished her more than the visits in which her frightened, protective mother brings food.
The Old Maid gets her prize, of course, and is soon leading the girl out into a world she gazes at with little comprehension. Stolevski lets us witness just enough to understand that Maria, and now her companion, can take the form of humans and other animals, but that doing so is fatal to the host. (Many fistfuls of innards are exchanged in the transformation.) We hear the youngster’s thoughts in a whispery Malickian voiceover, with syntax almost too strange to comprehend.
At first she longs for her absent “whisper-mama,” aware that her “witch-mama” has made her “me-the-witch.” Then the two are separated, and me-the-witch stumbles into the first use of her abilities, stealing the form of a woman (Rapace) in a small farm hamlet.
But all she gets is the woman’s body, not her understanding of language or how to behave. She staggers around as naked and curious as an ape in 2001. Villagers think the woman has gone mad, made senseless by beatings from her husband. No wonder that the first things the young witch learns about people are how much women talk when they’re alone, and how silent they are with men around.
It’s all so strange, she marvels. But what isn’t, when you think about it? She attempts to learn the humans’ ways, here and as she moves around taking other forms. Now and then Maria pays her a visit, offended that she has chosen mortal company. They’ll figure you out, the crone warns. They’ll tear you to pieces. But the youth continues to push forward, astonished by even cruel realities as she becomes better at playing the part of a human.
Stolevski depicts the young creature’s journey toward humanity with sensitivity and increasing investment. While an uncharitable viewer might find things to mock in the strangeness of the first half-hour, few will have that impulse beyond that point; and one hesitates to suggest different ways the writer/director might have brought us to the point at which one incarnation of the young witch (Alice Englert) seems at the threshold of happiness.
Still, the film never emerges from the threat of its title, which would be a comforting promise in most other contexts. Maria, whose own story we eventually learn, will not easily abandon the child she stole. And even those who barely understand the world know that no life ends happily. From a certain kind of stranger’s perspective, though, the experience may be worth the price one pays.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)
Production company: Causeway Films
Distributor: Focus Features
Cast: Alice Englert, Anamaria Marinca, Noomi Rapace, Carloto Cotta, Félix Maritaud, Sara Klimoska
Director-Screenwriter: Goran Stolevski
Producers: Kristina Ceyton, Sam Jennings
Executive Producers: Stephen Kelliher, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross, Noomi Rapace
Director of photography: Matthew Chuang
Production designer: Bethany Ryan
Costume designer: Sladjana Peric-Santrac
Editor: Luca Cappelli
Composer: Mark Bradshaw
In MacedonianRated R, 1 hour 49 minutes
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