Coven of Sisters
Dark Spanish witch hunt drama has violence, sex, language.
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Coven of Sisters
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A Lot or a Little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Coven of Sisters (Akelarre in its original Spanish and Basque language version) is a dark film about the Catholic church's historical attempts to root out moral corruption and perceived demonic sorcery by burning women accused of witchcraft at the stake. The film has some very violent scenes, including one where men attempt to rid a young woman of the devil by poking deeply into her skin with a sharp implement, threatening to thrust it into the center of her eye. She screams and bleeds, just as we've seen other young women return from previous interrogations bloody, traumatized, and with their hair shorn. The women are chased, dragged, tortured, stripped down to their underclothes, and imprisoned. They participate in what appears to be a satanic ritual, where they writhe, scream, chant, dance, and wag their tongues. Their interactions with demonic spirits are described in sexual terms -- demons being swallowed through their "asses," the devil introducing his apparently ample and thorny "tail" into young women. One of the inquisitors in particular is aroused by the women's tales and their reenactments of orgasmic pleasure. He talks of "vices of the flesh" and the temptation for men of very young women. One woman is seen naked from behind. Language (in English subtitles) includes "f--k," "s--t," "whore," "bitch," "ass," "c-ck," and various terms for the devil. The film was reviewed in the original Spanish and Basque with subtitles in English.
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What's the Story?
It's 1609 in the Basque Country in northern Spain, and a group of clergymen have been charged with rooting out witches from small villages in COVEN OF SISTERS. Judge Rostegui (Alex Brendemühl) leads the effort, and he seems to have a unique fascination for the ways of the devil and the ritual ceremonies of "witches." He rounds up five young women and one girl from a rural village and throws them into a makeshift cell. The women see a way to outsmart the judge by slowly revealing details of apparently made-up rituals and making them as salacious as possible. Their hope is to delay his decision until the men of their village come back from sea and rescue them. One of the women, Ana (Amaia Aberasturi), steps forward to take responsibility for the others.
Is It Any Good?
There are some interesting ideas in this film, as well as solid acting and stunning cinematography, but this respected work from Spain is neither as original nor as shocking as it intends. Films shot entirely or, like Coven of Sisters, partially in the regional Basque language are still relatively uncommon, and the film portrays the Castilian Spaniards as contemptuous of the local language and culture. Yet this is not the first film to address the subject of local witch hunts nor even to be called Akelarre, its original title and a Basque term for 'the witches' Sabbath.' The film successfully builds suspense and moves surprisingly fast for its limited settings, thanks to engrossing, close-up performances by several of the main actors, in particular Brendemühl and Aberasturi. The artistic use of light and shadow, and studied framing (see especially scenes on the sea cliffs and of the six women staged in their makeshift cell), make the film attractive to watch as well. It won several technical prizes at the Oscar-equivalent Spanish Goya Awards.
The sense you get watching Coven is that its creators intended very much to shock. The problem is that its predictability doesn't leave a lot of room for that (warning: spoilers ahead). It's more or less expected that the men, even those of the cloth, will be aroused by the idea of attractive young women involved in sexual, albeit satanic, rituals. When the captured girls simulate being possessed, their contortionist moves, wagging tongues, guttural chants, and wild dances are curious but not frightening -- precisely because we believe they're acting. Judging by the final scene (think Thelma & Louise circa 1609), the director seems to want to leave us with a small doubt about whether the women actually hold secret powers. This is less successful than what the film does aptly convey, which is the unjust victimizations of brutal, sadistic witch hunts. Strangely, though, the film teeters on the edge of falling into its own trap -- and undermining its intended feminist messages -- by offering up the actresses' youth and beauty in its own nearly exploitative way. A naked-from-behind bath scene wasn't entirely necessary, nor were repeated female references to large phalluses, nor a cringe-worthy line about Lucifer using charming young women "who have just left childhood behind" as bait for men.
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about the history of witch hunts the world over, as portrayed in Coven of Sisters. What is the origin of the fear and conviction of women as witches?
What do you know about the Basque Country in Spain? Where could you go for more information about its geography, history, and unique culture and language?
Do you believe Ana and her friends had special powers? Did the film want to suggest this, and how so?
Women support each other throughout this film and against the odds of their vulnerable and powerless positions. How so?
- On DVD or streaming: March 12, 2021
- Cast: Amaia Aberasturi, Alex Brendemühl, Daniel Fanego
- Director: Pablo Agüero
- Studio: Netflix
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: History, Monsters, Ghosts, and Vampires
- Run time: 92 minutes
- MPAA rating: NR
- Last updated: February 17, 2023
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