Ekn 19th century Macedonia, a witch roams the hills. She’s a ghoulish cautionary tale told to children, referred to as the wolf-eateress. But one day, to a new mother in an isolated house, she’s suddenly very real, hovering above the baby, thirsty for fresh blood. The woman pleads, begs for a deal. If the witch returns when her daughter is 16, she can take her then. The witch agrees but as a sign of their bargain cuts the baby’s tongue, rendering her incapable of speech.
It’s a bold, attention-securing first scene, writer-director Goran Stolevski taking one of many big swings in a one-of-a-kind debut, arresting not just because of its horrific act of violence against a baby (it is mercifully not explicit) but of its calm, matter-of-fact nature. In Stolevski’s vividly wrought world, the supernatural is an accepted part of life. It’s feared and demonised, ja, but whenever it crashes into scene, it’s not met with great shock, more an inevitable sigh. It comes for us all.
The desperate mother feigns a loss, that the witch has taken her child, allowing her to hide the baby in a cave, a sacred place she believes will be safe. The child grows up feral, afraid but curious, until one day, the witch finds and takes her. She gives her the spit, which in the world of the film is a conversion, given just once in a witch’s lifetime, making the child immortal as well, able to switch bodies when she meets someone she wants to inhabit. And so begins a fascinating journey, a life in the bodies of others.
There are vague shades of Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin and, in his less self-indulgent, less recent films, the work of Terrence Malick. But Stolevski’s film is confidently of his own creation. Most of the dialogue is Macedonian narration, the fractured speech of someone figuring out how to be, in awe of nature while weighed down by a mounting disappointment in humanity, in how women are manhandled and sexualised, a stranger able to look at how unjust such an accepted and normalised patriarchy might then seem.
It’s a deft and thrilling conceit, experiencing the highs and lows of life through different people. Stolevski, in a film that feels less like a debut and more a late-stage magnum opus, has found an ingenious vessel to make profound observations on gender, sex and being.
The bodies allow for an international cast – Swedish Noomi Rapace, Australian Alice Englert, Portugese Carloto Cotta and Macedonian Sara Klimoska – each sharing an ever-learning wonder and a physical awkwardness, an incredible feat of collective and consistent acting.
Experiencing life as a man provides an illuminating lesson, his odd behaviour laughed off by others or blamed on the evils of women while sex is meant to be pleasurable and controlled. As a woman, life is based more on violence and subjugation and sex is to be tolerated (she’s told not to relish the act). But the film is not steeped in oppressive darkness, it’s a tale of growing strength and unwavering endurance and how to find joy in a life that many might tell you is without it.
With just short films under his belt before this, Stolevski is operating at a higher, more assured level than most with a great deal more experience.
As a director, he’s as thrilled by the specifics of nature and human interaction as his protagonist, picking out the curious small things and suddenly making them that feel that much bigger, cracking open this world for us all.
As a writer, he’s capable of remarkable insight and empathy, shown most effectively in the late-stage reveal of a harrowing backstory for the wolf-eateress, a woman destroyed by male expectation and judgment. His film toys with fairy tale fantasy and gruesome body horror – there are plenty of torn innards on display – but he has ultimately created something indefinable, gloriously so, like nothing we’ve really ever seen before and like nothing we’re likely to see again.