Set in the Basque Country in 1609, Coven of Sisters follows a group of women who are arrested after being accused of witchcraft. A judge, dispatched by the Spanish crown to travel through the country to persecute women they believe to be witches, puts the young women under trial to force them to confess they are witches. However, the young women find a way to postpone their execution as much as possible in the hope of escaping from this fate.
This is a historical film about the witch trials in the Basque country, viewed through a contemporary lens. Due to an immersive cinematographic style and great performances, Coven of Sisters is a captivating and atmospheric film.
Coven of Sisters starts with fire. The figure of a woman is burning, while two men look on. “How many more deaths” one asks, to which the other replies that he will not be satisfied until they have revealed the secrets of the Witches’ Sabbath to him. The original title of the film, “Akelarre,” is the Basque word for Witches’ Sabbath. As these opening images suggest, this is the story of a man with a deluded obsession. The man in question is an Inquisition cleric Rostegui, played by Álex Brendemühl. He wants to witness the Witches’ Sabbath, strongly believing its existence, and has gone on a killing spree to see it with his own eyes.
He arrives at a new seaside village, welcomed by the young local priest (Asier Oruesagasti), who despite having known all the villagers all his life, will never object to anything Rostegui will decide. Rostegui and his delegation of priests and soldiers enter the village just as the men of the community, all sailors, have set sail. The women are alone, defenseless against armed soldiers.
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Soldiers come to arrest five young women, weavers in the village who are all close friends. In the brief moment before the arrival of the soldiers, the film quickly reveals the personality of these young women. Ana, played by Amaia Aberasturi, has a rebellious nature with an over-zealous imagination, while Katalin, played by Garazi Urkola, is younger and naïve. Thrown into prison cells, stripped to their undergarments, the five women have no idea why they have been arrested. It is slowly revealed, after each is taken by soldiers to be interrogated, one by one, that because they were seen going into the forest together, they have been accused of being witches.
Understanding Rostegui’s obsession with the Witches’ Sabbath and his not-so-repressed sexual desires, Ana imagines a plan with her friends to tell him the stories he wants to hear, like Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights.
Spoken in Basque and Castilian Spanish, the film hints at the suppression of regional culture and language during the Spanish Inquisition, but it is more concerned with the way women were treated. It is women’s liberty that the Inquisition wants to quash, hiding their free-flowing hair and forbidding dancing. Rostegui, in fact, describes the story of the dancing plague in Strasbourg of 1518, started by a woman he says, to prove that a woman dancing is the devil’s work.
The story is of course told through the prism of today’s perspective, so some of what is said in the film resembles more today’s discourse, especially in the sequence where the old woman advises Ana on how to defeat Rostegui, when she is bathing her (which felt more like a gratuitous nude sequence). But there certainly was some women at the time who did the same as Ana and confessed to the absurd notion that they may be a witch in the hope of being spared, or sparing others. Men, under the guise of religion, killed thousands of women across Europe in the 16th and 17th century, accusing them of witchcraft.
Coven of Sisters is a compelling movie. It is filmed in a style that immerses viewers into the historical world it is depicting. The camera stays close to its subjects, conferring a proximity to the characters and the situation they find themselves in, and puts viewers at times literally in their shoes. One sequence, for example, shows the point of view of one of the young women as a sack is put over her face when she is guided, or rather pushed, into the prison cell. This closeness creates this feeling of immersion and captures the attention.
Coven of Sisters (Akelarre) is on Netflix since March 11.