“It’s a burning, hurting thing… this world,” intones a solemn narrator. It’s even more burning when you’re a witch! Steeped in Macedonian folklore, You Won’t Be Alone is a hauntingly humanistic fable about ancient witches struggling to make sense of the austere world around them. The feature debut of writer-director Goran Stolevski uses a simple horror premise to illuminate weighty themes of motherhood, jealousy, connection, and place. It’s a challenging, beautiful work of immense power that will undoubtedly find an audience in the 2022 arthouse scene.
Everyone in the village knows the tale of Old Maid Maria (Anamaria Marinca). How the 200-year-old witch can shapeshift into any creature of her choosing. The legend excludes Maria’s desperate loneliness, forever doomed to roam the 19th Century Macedonian wilderness alone. It’s this yearning for companionship and motherhood that leads her to the newborn Nevena. Maria makes a pact with Nevena’s mother to spare the child until her 16th birthday when she will return to take possession of the young girl.
Discovering the witchery lore at the heart of You Won’t Be Alone is its initial appeal. What do those strange markings on Nevena’s chest mean? Why do the witches covet the body parts of their victims? What is a witching spit? These questions would be enough to sustain most horror films, but Stolevski has more profound questions to ponder. Namely, can the ultimate outcast find a sense of connection in the world?
Much like the film itself, the answer to this question is complicated. The young Nevena (Sara Klimoska), now transformed into a witch by Maria, takes many human forms as her own. She experiences the cruel subjugation of being a woman (Noomi Rapace as ‘Wife-of-Boris’), the charmed existence of unjust men, and the joyfulness of an innocent child. Nevena even falls in love and becomes pregnant. Still, the ever-present threat of discovery haunts her. In this burning, hurting world, the outcast is always a visitor.
Stolevski thoroughly immerses the viewer in the strangeness of this place. Set in an abandoned Serbian village, you can practically hear the crumbling of decrepit structures. Because Nevena was struck mute by Maria, there is very little dialogue. Instead, we hear Nevena’s internal monologue; twisted, halting snippets of cryptic rantings, disturbingly vague yet sharp as a knife. “Me, am I devils?” she wonders. How could she possibly separate her own evil from the devils that dictate the reality around her?
And yet there are moments of uplifting beauty that sustain Nevena. Tiny moments, like playing a game with the other girls or exchanging a coy grin with one of the boys, draw her tightly to a larger community. It’s Nevena’s attainment of love and connection that both inspires and infuriates Maria, who is incapable of seeing anything apart from suffering.
You Won’t Be Alone is the story of two outcasts who cannot escape one another. The jealousies and yearnings that drive them are far more ancient and powerful than the witchcraft that binds them.