A harrowing, yet beautiful take on the patriarchy and internalised misogyny.
Synopsis: A young woman returns to her native mountain village, searching for answers about her troubled childhood, but as she tries to uncover the truth, ancient superstitions lead the villagers to accuse her of witchcraft and murder.
It is easy to take aim at the patriarchy and the men who sustain it, but perhaps more difficult to identify and probe the role that women can play in upholding the restrictive values it represents. This is what separates Nightsiren from other films exploring the idea of the ‘witch hunt’, whether in a period or modern setting. In the ‘lonely village’ of Nightsiren, men, women, young people and older people are all invested in maintaining the traditions that hold them in a state of often violent oppression.
After a jaw-dropping opening scene in which we meet Šarlota (Natalia Germani) as a child fleeing her abusive mother, there is a time jump to her returning to the village as an adult, drawn by a letter detailing an inheritance she needs to collect. Finding the village mostly unchanged, still steeped in the same rituals and constraints she tries to find solace with Mira (Eva Mores), a woman who also seems at odds with the village.
The gender politics around the upholding of those rituals are woven throughout, both within the village and the wider world. During an early scene, Mira attempts to hide Šarlota from a tradition in which water is thrown onto women, despite their requests to not partake. That custom, with an implicit relationship to ‘witch tests’ and ‘ducking’ takes on greater relevance as the villagers’ anger against the women. That women are seen to accept and in some cases even welcome that anger results in some of the film’s most uncomfortable scenes.
Arranged into multiple chapters and relying on flashbacks to fill in important details, the film is occasionally at risk of dawdling a little too much. However, what it lacks in pace it makes up for with near-celestial, shimmering scenes set in the forest and embedding meaning in the smallest moments throughout. A dance sequence, for example, serves as a moment of hope as the younger members of the village all appear to be on the same page. The moment is short-lived, showing just how tight the grip of their way of life is upon them as it signals a descent into further horror.
The photography furthers the link between the women and nature, with snakes and wolves operating as threats, protectors and everything in between. Despite the links to nature, the film allows space for the women to discuss their discomfort with the expectation of women to be maternal while also highlighting the distress and burden of pregnancy and miscarriage. Šarlota’s mother is an abusive figure and the other women in the village, too, despite it being against their best interests – this questions that biological essentialism and places it in a wider context of complicity in archaic, damaging systems. That the natural world in the film is presented as both freeing and stifling adds another level of intrigue than the conventional witchy reliance on nature narrative.
Nightsiren never wants viewers to be completely comfortable, frequently presenting challenging scenes and ideas. Despite that discomfort, the story within is a gripping one that feels bigger than the narrative mysteries it details.
4 out of 5 stars
Nightsiren played as part of the Glasgow Film Festival 2023.