starring Eva Mores, Iva Bittová, Jana Oľhová, Juliana Oľhová, Natalia Germani
written by Barbora Namerova, Tereza Nvotová
directed by Tereza Nvotová
The Boston Underground Film Festival runs from March 22-March 26, 2023. Click here for more info.
by Walter Chaw Tereza Nvotová's Slovakian folk horror Nightsiren joins films like Robert Eggers's The Witch (2015), Lukas Feigelfeld's Hagazussa: A Heathen's Tale (2017), Igor Legarreta's All the Moons (2020), and Goran Stolevki's You Won't Be Alone (2022): gynocentric celebrations of the power of women and the lengths to which patriarchal social systems seek, and have always sought, to suppress it. A glance at the Republican docket in the year of their asshole of a lord, 2023, finds it full of extraordinary, unseemly interest in women's bodies--their reproductive capacity, their allure to troglodytes raised to see women as objects to be owned and mastered, their perceived unfitness in a world most-of-the-way destroyed by the jealous rule of "qualified" men. What these films have in common besides a woman as their centre are the overlapping, parallel superstitions of a range of countries, each fabricated as pretense (and then codified into law) to injure women: socially, physically, mortally if necessary. What's different about Nightsiren is how the cries of "witch," the public excoriations and publicly-sanctioned mortifications, happen in the present--in the wilds of a modern Slovakia that feels ancient for its remoteness but eternal for the extent to which "difficult" women are blamed for the plague and end times promulgated by the bestial cupidity of men. Dress it up however you like, but we've only evolved the ways we pretend at civilization--and even then, not much, and not consistently. Is it progress that we've essentially stopped pretending? We are only shaved apes, so we act accordingly.
In Nightsiren, Šarlota (Natalia Germani) returns to her birthplace upon her mother's death to claim her inheritance: a small house in the middle of nowhere that's now nothing but ash, burned to its foundation. A witch has been blamed for the arson. Witches, it seems, are blamed for anything that goes wrong here. When the film opens, we see a young Šarlota fleeing her abusive mother and authoring a terrible accident that is also, subsequently, attributed to a witch. As one might expect, this makes the Šarlota who's back after a long absence skeptical about the existence of witches; misfortune and boon alike are credited to the supernatural by the frightened and the incurious. Viewed with suspicion by the locals, she finds a place to stay with young, accepting Mira (Eva Mores), a free spirit amongst the provincials whose hospitality is met with virulent homophobia. But then the animals in the village start getting sick, and Šarlota proves too attractive to the upstanding menfolk, and the rumours a witch has returned to this remote village begin to spread.
What I like most about Nightsiren is its clarity of comfort with metaphor. Šarlota occupies a literal high ground atop a steep mountain drop-off while the ugly rumours and folk wisdom of the natives fester in the valleys beneath it. Periodically, Šarlota sees through the world into the essence of things. She attends a party, a typical small-town blowing off of steam that, through her perception, becomes an orgy of writhing Bacchites, the expression of fanatically-repressed desires. There are multiple scenes of submersion for Šarlota as she's baptized into different roles: the child, the whore, the mother, and not the crone so much as the witch, which is often depicted as a crone in the popular imagination. She confesses to Mira her shame of having miscarried a child and her belief that it may have happened because she didn't want it. She mentions it was a daughter as though this were an important detail--and based on the themes and ideas within the film, indeed it is. Šarlota didn't want to be a mother, it's clear, and it's possible she especially didn't want to be responsible for bringing another woman into the world, given what her experiences say about how women are treated. Nightsiren moves between long contemplations of Natural beauty and images of the mendacity of its destruction: the culling of animals, the revulsion towards white snakes in the garden, and moments in which violence becomes a function of facility and habit. It's about how deeply buried our biases are--internalized if they're against us and weaponized when they're against others, but only apparent in moments of crisis when our inexplicable cruelties are laid bare. The picture ends with one final submersion--two women, hand-in-hand, cleansing themselves in a cool mountain lake. Nightsiren ends, in other words, with the possibility of salvation and rejuvenation. Of being born clean from the blood of a broken world, yes--but blood comes first, and the future is female.