Review: Wildly compelling ‘You Won’t Be Alone’ reveals the sublime amid life’s terror

A woman looks skyward as another woman tends to her injured shoulder in the movie “You Won’t Be Alone”
Noomi Rapace, right, in the movie “You Won’t Be Alone.”
(Branko Starcevic / Focus Features)

“It’s a burning, breaking thing, this world, a biting, wretching thing. And yet … and yet …” This refrain, whispered throughout writer-director Goran Stolevski’s mesmerizing directorial debut, “You Won’t Be Alone,” serves first as a revelation, and then becomes something like a prayer. It ultimately serves as a thesis for this project, a contemplation of life itself through folklore, splashed with elements of horror. For all of the terrible things the characters in this film endure, it’s that “and yet,” that rings throughout the viewer’s mind. Life is bloody, and tragic, and often terrible, and yet, it can also be profoundly beautiful, in the simplest of ways.

“You Won’t Be Alone” is a fairy tale brought to the screen with a startling amount of realism. Set in a 19th century Macedonian village, all too real in its terror, no gory detail glossed over, it’s a story of witches and murder and love, lost and longed for.

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A mother pleads for her baby daughter’s life, making a bargain with the “Wolf-Eateress,” Old Maid Maria (Anamaria Marinca), who has slunk into town looking for fresh blood. The mother promises the witch her daughter when she turns 16, but stashes her baby in a secluded cave, hoping to escape the deal she’s made. In this cave, Nevena (Sara Klimoska) grows up feral, alive but not living a life, and soon Maria comes to claim what she’s been promised, bringing Nevena out into the world and granting the girl her one witch’s spit. She teaches her to feast on animals’ blood and their ability to shapeshift, a remarkably violent and bloody process.


Nevena, completely new to the world, is transfixed by sunlight, water and tender leaves, the nature she’s been deprived of, not knowing anything of what it means to be a person in the world. When Maria abandons her in disgust, Nevena wanders into a local village, and in order to survive, she begins to shapeshift her way through various people, from an abused young mother (Noomi Rapace), to a handsome young man (Carloto Cotta), to a young girl named Biliana (Anastasija Karanovich and Alice Englert, as an adult). She learns what it means to be a human, but in reverse, starting as a grown woman, ending up a child.

She learns to speak and to work and to love; she learns about the ugliness of man and the beauty of childhood, but she’s visited often by the jealous Maria, who is astonished at Nevena’s ability to assimilate. “Why is it so easy for you?” She asks, though that’s never a question to which she wants an answer, but an accusation. Maria has red, mottled skin, stringy hair and long black talons. She’s been burned, her skin taut, rippled, almost like a protective bark, and when we learn her story, a legend reeled off next to the fire, we know why she is so bitter and cruel. She’s been a victim of the misogynistic patriarchy that rules the village, though belonging to the village, belonging to a man, is all she ever wanted before this life.

Filmed in a lyrical, intimate manner, utilizing a handheld camera to capture the beauty of nature and the expression of each actor, the story of “You Won’t Be Alone” is told almost entirely visually. Each version of Nevena is nearly wordless, and the physical performances by Klimoska, Rapace and Cotta are astonishing, especially the way that Rapace and Cotta physically express the transition into this new person, still learning and understanding the world, and how to be in it. Narration expresses Nevena’s newfound and fumbling grasp on her environs, in an unrefined but poignant poetry.

There are moments when you want to look away from “You Won’t Be Alone,” but it’s so wildly compelling, in performance, writing and score, that one cannot. It feels like something unearthed from another time, an ancient relic that is utterly modern in its craft and in the truths it tells about the world. It is startling, and sometimes disturbing, but hits a place that is intensely human — bittersweet and bloody and beautiful at once, and unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Is it horror? Well, life can be a horror. And yet ….

Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.

‘You Won't Be Alone’

In Macedonian with English subtitles

Rated: R, for violence and gore, sexual content, graphic nudity, and sexual assault

Running time: 1 hour 46 minutes

Playing: Starts April 1 in general release