Nightsiren (Svetlonoc) (2022)

Nightsiren (Svetlonoc) has its UK première at Glasgow Film Festival 2023

“Even in modern Europe, in certain lonely villages, folklore and medieval superstitions are still considered a way of life,” reads text at the beginning of Nightsiren (Svetlonoc). 

The film opens with a primal scene: faced with the hair-pulling wrath of her abusive mother Alžbeta (Petra Vajdová), little Šarlota (Sára Tömölová) flees from their woodland cabin and accidentally causes her even younger sister Tamara (Ela Stanová), who is running behind her, to fall over the edge of a cliff. Now decades later, the adult Šarlota (Natalia Germani) comes back to this place for the first time since, summoned by a mayoral letter concerning her mother’s inheritance proceedings. 

There is not much to inherit. The old cabin has long since burnt down, claimed by locals to have been the handiwork of neighbouring witch Otyla (Iva Bittová), who is also said to have taken Alžbeta’s missing children Šarlota and Tamara for her own nefarious ends. Otyla and Alžbeta have themselves long since vanished, and while Šarlota knows that the story about her own and her sister’s fate is untrue, rumours that Otyla also looked after a ‘wild child’ have Šarlota wondering if perhaps her sister may somehow still be alive.   

This small woodland village is, as the opening text suggested, a place still stuck in the past, but then so, in her own way, is Šarlota too. For as this lost soul, literally scarred, retreads her old haunts, Nightsiren keeps showing flashbacks to the same locations, as Šarlota’s childhood trauma is constantly retriggered and risks reopening all her wounds old and new. Despite warnings from locals who are terrified of anything to do with Otyla, Šarlota moves into the marginalised, missing woman’s basic cabin in the woods, where she finds her own old teddy bear and a large braid of Otyla’s hair mysteriously hidden in a chest. 

Šarlota soon befriends Mira (Eva Mores), the only other city girl living in the village, and a young woman whose free-spirited ways make her stand out among the otherwise repressed denizens of this backward, god-fearing environment, drawing the attention, not always positive or wanted, of men and women alike. Indeed, Šarlota and Mira are about to find themselves scapegoated, much as Otyla was before them, for all this village’s sins and superstitions.

All the typical trappings of witchcraft – the naked moonlit rituals, the familiar relationship with wolves and snakes, the sexual abandon, the knowledge and use of herbs, the concealed baldness, the mutated or murdered livestock, the dancing around bonfires, the missing children  – are present and correct in Nightsiren, but are mostly rationalised and all reconfigured as something harmless. For this is a film less about female malefactors than about the villagers’ partriarchal structures and deep-seated misogynies (some internalised by the local women themselves) which suppress difference and readily blame innocent women. While Šarlota, crippled with guilt and grief, searches for answers, even redemption, in a past that she does not fully understand, her insistent investigation will also expose the village’s barely concealed historical traditions of abuse, rape and vigilante trials by water and fire.   

Even as Nightsiren appears to reduce witchcraft to something that can be readily explained by those not out hunting for the wrong answers, at the same time there can be no denying that there is magic at work in these woods. For while director Tereza Nvotová, rejoining her co-writer Barbora Namerova for the first time since Filthy (Spina, 2017), brings to the surface the very worst aspects of parochial small-mindedness, male errancy and human nature, at the same time these two filmmakers are unveiling the beauty and mystery of the woods, way out on the village’s margins, which first Otyla and now Šarlota call home. 

Here, in a very understated way, miracles happen – elements in the narrative which defy reason, suggesting a feminine energy (call it sisterhood) more ancient than the church teachings used to justify the villagers’ actions. That power binds Šarlota and Mira together, protecting them in a solidarity that is, after all, the inheritance for which Šarlota has come. It is what gives this Slovakian sort-of horror feature its decidedly feminist stamp: for the wild witches in these woods are the victims, prey and final girls, while the ‘civilised’ townsfolk are the true threat.

strap: In Tereza Nvotová’s feminist drama, a damaged young woman returns to her home village for an inheritance, but faces a witch hunt

© Anton Bitel