In the opening sequence of Goran Stolevski’s haunting and philosophical new film You Won’t Be Alone, a mother comes face-to-face with an awful spirit, a witch, a legend, an old wives’ tale, known as Old Maid Maria. Seated beside the woman’s newborn baby, Maria is a frightful thing, with thin, stringy hair, her nude body livid and puckered, as if it’s been burned. In the language of the film’s Macedonian peasants, Maria is not a witch, but a sheep-eateress, something more like a vampire, a thing that feeds off the blood of the living—animal as well as human—opening bodies, including its own, using its long, black claws. The sheep-eateress is a shapeshifter, too, capable of inhabiting the corpse of its victim and of making others like itself.
And yet, an “it,” Maria is not. Not quite. Played with exquisite subtlety and sensitivity by Anamaria Marinca, Old Maid Maria has arrived to feed on the peasant woman’s baby, but she’s willing, for a moment, to listen to the mother’s pleas of forbearance. The woman begs Maria to let the baby live for now, to let the mother see her child grow, and then, when the girl turns 16, the sheep-eateress can have her, a daughter of her own, the mother says, to look after her in her old age. Maria takes the deal, rendering the girl mute as a down payment. But the mother immediately attempts to get out of her bargain by hiding the baby in a nearby cave. She raises her daughter in total isolation, the girl’s only contact with the outside world, her only means for understanding her body and her inner life, coming through a few inaccessible gaps in the stone. When Old Maid Maria finally comes to collect, she releases the girl from one captivity only to condemn her to another, making her a sheep-eateress like herself, an eternal outcast from society. But the girl is too struck by wonder at the landscapes and beings she’s been introduced to to feed and wander aimlessly like her “witch-mama.” Finally frustrated by her protégé’s reluctance and intransigence, Maria casts the girl aside to fend for herself. You’ll see, she warns. Just you wait. She may be a monster now, but Maria has a history, as we’ll come to learn, and her cynicism about the humans upon which she preys is hard earned. But is it fate?
By way of an answer, the now independent girl uses her shapeshifting powers to take refuge among a family of peasants, to live as one of them, though oddly, still mute and uncomfortable in her new body. Suddenly thrust into the role of mother and wife, she finds she’s landed in yet another prison, though one she’ll eventually leverage for a kind of liberation.
You Won’t Be Alone is an intoxicating and affecting exploration of humanity through estrangement, a study of the rudiments of society, the dangers and pleasures of being with and without others. The film’s camerawork, defamiliarizing the natural and naturalizing the marvelous, matches the lyricism of the girl’s strange, poetic inner monologue. And Stolevski’s cast does a remarkable job of passing the developing entity of the girl around, maintaining consistency of character while embodying growth as she seeks to educate herself through many forms—female and male, human and animal—always following her inherently loving curiosity against the expectations of the singular Maria, looking on from the margins, skeptical, resentful, envious and cruel. Maybe being born a woman among these brutish clans is the real root of Old Maid Maria’s curse, as suggested by her mocking name. But her protégé’s more-than-human pursuit of joy over revenge or escape suggests another possible way of surviving this “burning, hurting thing” that is the world.