Runtime: 106 minutes
Director: Tereza Nvotova
Writers: Tereza Nvotova and Barbora Namerova
Stars: Natalia Germani, Eva Mores, Juliana Olhova
By Calum Cooper
Tereza Nvotova’s “Nightsiren” (2023) serves as a good inversion to Robert Eggers’ “The Witch” (2016). While both are fascinated by the folklore and gothic fables that define their own tones and stories, “Nightsiren” is very much interested in how the superstitions of these fables have creeped into contemporary settings. Much like William McGregor’s underrated movie “Gwen” (2019), “Nightsiren” staunchly believes that the supposed horrors of imagined supernaturals pale in comparison to the horrors of ordinary people. That belief is what makes it such a strong film.
Years ago, Sarlota (Natalia Germani) ran away from home. This was to escape from her abusive mother, as well as the consequences of an awful accident she caused. After her mother’s passing she returns to their remote mountain village to collect the inheritance. This surprises the villagers, as they believed she was dead. Sarlota stays in the village seeking answers and closure, but the longer she remains, the more the villagers become convinced that she is a witch.
Nvotova and co-writer Barbora Namerova open their script by highlighting how remote villages such as the one Sarlota returns to are so isolated that they often hold on to the superstitious notions that would be right at home in medieval settings. Anything that is not considered normal or conforming must be the work of witchcraft or some other ancient or non-human evil. It is a crucial point to emphasise. This is a movie about how traditional ideas of the status quo – many of which still exist in one form or another today – can be weaponised to gaslight and ultimately harm others, especially women. That the film adopts a look and feel that would be right at home in a Brothers Grimm fable only adds to the richness of its thematic concerns.
Federico Cesca’s cinematography is reminiscent of Alejandro Landes’ “Monos” (2019), as it captures the landscape of the setting both beautifully and hauntingly in equal measure. The isolation of this village is portrayed dazzlingly through the sweeping shots of mountainous forests, and close ups of secluded cabins and the sparsely populated villagers. The weaving together of these visual choices alongside the ominous soundtrack generates a superb atmosphere that you can almost feel the chill of. Despite the veil of togetherness that this community demonstrates through their customs, Sarlota is well and truly alone – a sheep among wolves.
“Nightsiren” presents a richly atmospheric story that creeps under your skin that stays there throughout the runtime. Adopting the visual style and narrative eeriness of gothic tales, it uses this element to cleverly explore contemporary sociopolitical problems, and how medieval ideas of misogyny continue to persist.”
What is especially compelling about “Nightsiren” is how it portrays the ease of which differences, whether personal or circumstantial, can be twisted by patriarchy into something that can easily be deemed grotesque or alien. Running parallel to the story of Sarlota’s return is that of a past resident from years ago – Otyla (Iva Bittova), who many in the village believed was a witch too. Many in the village believed that Otyla killed both Sarlota and her mother through witchcraft, hence their surprise to see Sarlota appear again. The truth is so much simpler – Sarlota ran away from home due to abuse – but acknowledging this would be at odds with the patriarchal righteousness of the townsfolk. The tension that boils from the conflicts between Sarlota’s guilt and desire for truth with the townsfolk’s staunch self-righteousness and refusal to accept anything that isn’t their definition of decent is astonishing. Although much of the violence is implied for most of the runtime in “Nightsiren”, when it moves from implication into physical aggression, the unease of its narrative and visual presentation crescendos fantastically.
Anchoring all of this atmospheric terror are some terrific performances that add considerable empathy to already strongly written characters. Sarlota develops a dynamic with fellow townsmember Mira (Eva Mores), who sees things on a similar wavelength to her. Mores and Germani’s chemistry is palpable, with Germani in particular giving a gripping turn as she navigates the heavy weight of her trauma with the strength of her convictions. Meanwhile, characters such as Julianna Olhova’s Helene and Marek Geisberg’s Tomaz make for horrifying antagonists that either unwillingly or deliberately feed into the idea of patriarchy and how it uses the facade of witchcraft to subjugate and erase in service to the status quo.
“Nightsiren” presents a richly atmospheric story that creeps under your skin that stays there throughout the runtime. Adopting the visual style and narrative eeriness of gothic tales, it uses this element to cleverly explore contemporary sociopolitical problems, and how medieval ideas of misogyny continue to persist. It hooks you instantly – I audibly gasped a mere two minutes into its runtime – and refuses to let go from its unnerving opening scenes to its nail-biting climax. It is a brilliant feature from Nvotova, and a singular example of folklore horror, even among the ever growing pile of impressive folklore horrors we are seeing in today’s cinema.
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