BUFF, Film, Film Review

BUFF REVIEW: You Won’t Be Alone (2022) dir. Goran Stolevski

Part of the 2022 Boston Underground Film Festival


(L to R) Sara Klimoska stars as “Nevena” and Anamaria Marinca stars as “Maria” in director Goran Stolevski’s YOU WON’T BE ALONE, a Focus Features release. Credit: Branko Starcevic / Focus Features

Before I get into the meat of my review of You Won’t Be Alone, the feature debut from director Goran Stolevski, allow me one brief, meta-textual indulgence. In addition to its own (considerable) merits, You Won’t Be Alone was the opening night selection of the Boston Underground Film Festival– the first in fully three years (a 2020 edition was planned, but inevitably scrapped by the first wave of COVID lockdowns). If you’re a moviegoer in the Boston area (and, if you’re reading this, I can only assume you are), you know just how special BUFF is: a yearly five-day extravaganza of reliably outre cinematic offerings, ranging from big-gun arthouse distributors like A24 and Focus to hyperlocal independent shorts, music videos, and first features. I’ve been attending BUFF, in some capacity or another, for as long as I’ve lived in Boston, and covering it each year is one of my favorite parts of working for the Hassle. As I settled into my seat at the Brattle, surrounded by slavering movie nuts and friends I haven’t seen in years, I felt as if a part of me was healing; picture a phantom limb suddenly rematerializing into flesh. If you’re vaccinated and have some free time this weekend, I cannot more highly recommend popping into a screening or two, even– or especially– if you know nothing about what you’re about to see. (And if not, feel free to live it vicariously through our ongoing coverage!).

The challenge, then, will be to separate my experience watching You Won’t Be Alone (about which I’ve literally been dreaming since pre-COVID times) from my feelings toward the film itself. But even if I’d watched it in my living room on a pixelated, watermarked screener link, I think it would easily remain one of the most enigmatic, bewitching films in quite some time.

The setup is pure folk horror: a peasant woman in rural Macedonia promises her infant daughter Nevena to Old Maid Maria (Annamaria Marinca), a scarred, shape-shifting sorceress (or “wolf-eateress”) who requires young souls to remain immortal. Having a sudden (and completely understandable) change of heart, the mother instead spirits her daughter away to a cave in the forest, where she is raised in near-total isolation. Inevitably, Maria eventually tracks them down, absconding with the adolescent Nevena (now played by Sara Klimoska) and training her in the ways of witchcraft. But Nevena escapes and, with no social skills except the ability to change her corporeal form, attempts to fit herself into society– whether as a woman, man, or child.

Alice Englert stars as “Biliana” in director Goran Stolevski’s YOU WON’T BE ALONE, a Focus Features release. Credit: Branko Starcevic / Focus Features

I will make no attempt to pass myself off as an expert in Slavic mythology, and will admit to having no idea to what degree this film is based on established folklore (a cursory cyber-search of “wolf-eateress” brings up only reviews of this film, though I suppose this could also be a function of idiosyncratic translation). But it feels like folklore– not the sanitized fairy tales that make their way into Little Golden Books, but the ancient, violent, borderline incomprehensible stories from whence they were derived. The villagers live in a dark, brutal world where evil, forest-dwelling witches are only one of the terrifying forces that might end their lives at a moment’s notice. The method through which Maria and Nevena change shape– by gouging a hole in their own chest, then scooping a handful of their host’s innards into it– is at once outrageously grisly and matter-of-fact, and something I haven’t seen in a movie before. This is the world before science, terrifying in its unpredictable mundanity.

But science is only a way of understanding the world around us; that world, and the people in it, have only changed so much over the centuries. Like the folktales of old, this isn’t really about a witch, but about humanity. Nevena must take a life each time she assumes a new form, but this isn’t some body-snatcher horror story. Rather, it’s the story of this young woman, an outsider on many levels, trying to get a grip on what it is to be a human living among other humans. The film is bound by Nevena’s elliptical, grammatically cracked narration, with words strung together as though by someone who has only just encountered them for the first time (Nevena refers to Maria as “witch-mother” and her biological mother, who raised her in the cave, as “whisper-mother”). Nevena’s naive perspective adds a layer of poetic wonder to the already fantastical proceedings; though the two films are obviously very different, the effect is not unlike Linda Manz’s rough-edged narration in Days of Heaven.

Noomi Rapace stars as “Bosilka” in director Goran Stolevski’s YOU WON’T BE ALONE, a Focus Features release. Credit: Branko Starcevic / Focus Features

It also, in its own way, turns this strange tale of witches and peasants into something easily relatable. Though her experience is extreme, Nevena taps into the universal feeling of trying to fit into a strange environment. When she assumes the form of a young mother (Noomi Rapace, who, contrary to her poster-star status, only appears for less than twenty minutes), she internalizes, with alien recognition, a woman’s dual nature in society (“Mouth closed when you’re with a man. With women, mouth always open.”). Inhabiting the body of a strapping young fieldhand, she discovers physical pleasure and the satisfaction of a day’s work; later, slipping into the place of an unfortunate young girl, she learns of childhood as she never got to experience it herself.

These scenes are occasionally played for absurdist comedy (in female form, she mimics another woman crying as if it’s a game they’re playing), but for the most part they convey a quiet, humanist beauty. Stolevkski’s camera observes the proceedings with a non-judgemental eye, even when viscera comes into play (the special effects are exceedingly sticky, and needless to say not for the squeamish). The film is pastoral, but deceptively modern; consider the soundtrack of shimmering solo electric guitar, more Durutti Column than Pentangle. This is a film steeped in the old ways, but like those durable old folktales, its essential story is timeless. Most of us may not be morally ambiguous, body-hopping witches, but there are some days when it sure feels like it.

You Won’t Be Alone
dir. Goran Stolevski
108 min.

Part of the 2022 Boston Underground Film Festival – watch this space for our continuing coverage!
Opens at Coolidge Corner Theatre Friday, 4/1

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