Netflixable? A “Coven of Sisters” fights the Witch-burning patriarchy in 16th century Basque Country

“Coven of Sisters” is a tight, tense Argentinian period piece set in witch-hunting, Inquisition Era Spain.

It’s clever enough to play around with the root reasons for witch-hunting — patriarchal control via terror — and so quick to make its exit that it feels incomplete. But what’s here is pretty harrowing and damned believable.

Sometime just before or after the Spanish Armada set sail, a traveling “judge” and his retinue of soldiers and aides reaches a coastal village in Basque country. They’re traveling from town to town, persecuting young women they can accuse, convict and burn for making demonically merry on a Witch’s Sabbath.

Prosecutor Salazar (Alex Brendemühl) and his advisor or “consejero” (Daniel Fanego) and sketch artist roll in and demand and receive the immediate cooperation of the local priest (Asier Oruesagasti) in their witch-hunting. Any strange behavior, young women carrying on, cavorting in the woods?

“Nothing is more dangerous than a dancing woman,” Salazar hisses (in Spanish, or dubbed into English).

Half a dozen friends and sisters are thus grabbed after merely being “seen” in the woods. They are shackled, tossed into a group cell and questioned one-by-one.

They’re in their teens, and once their initial terror fades a bit, they’re sure their innocence will be obvious and these strange men will recognize and admit their mistake. But as they’re interrogated and tortured one by one, coming back to the cell battered, punctured and shorn of their hair, Ana (Amaia Aberasturi) is the first to figure out they’re in a rigged game.

These men are hunting high and low for “signs” of corruption and wayward Christians, evidence of local “Satanic sects” and towns cursed — wells running dry, sheep giving no milk. And where there’s corruption there are sure to be wayward women causing it.

Ana is the one to figure out they’re timing these visits to phases of the moon, like the fishermen of each village, who depart and return on lunar tides. Damned if these theocratic creeps aren’t showing up when there are no men in town to protest and fight back.

But if the “sisters” tell the pervy prosecutor and his team what they want to hear, each acting out and stretching their tale out to last a day, they’ll run out the clock, the Basque fishermen will return and the Catholic Castilians won’t dare start burning local girls on suspicion of something they can’t prove.

I love that set-up, a “ticking clock thriller” conjured out of a witch-trial.

The meat on this script might have been the tales the girls tell, some of which are glimpsed here. More could have been done with this, showing us that the girls realize the stakes, even if some of them are reluctant to lie and blaspheme to save their necks.

The behavior of the inquisitors is monstrous and historically-defensible. They use soldiers as their muscle, cover their captives with hoods lest their eyes “bewitch” their accusers, and carry out interrogations that include nude physical examinations and flesh-rending “tests” that are nothing of the sort.

They’re superstitious sexists carrying out a war against women as a means of controlling the people.

The older women in the Basque village — an important distinction, as this is historical Spain’s most defiant and militant region — empathize with the girls and know this persecution for what it is.

“Men have always been afraid of fearless women.”

With sexism and misogyny basically a party platform of ultra conservative groups around the globe and across the religious spectrum, “Coven of Sisters” isn’t just another “bruja” (witch) tale set in witch-crazy Spain. It’s a horror story in which the real horror is but a metaphor for what women are up against, seemingly everywhere.

This tale ends somewhat unsatisfactorily. But the girls — Aberasturi, Yune Nogueiras, Garazi Urkola, Jone Laspiur, Irati Saez de Urabain and Lorea Ibarra — make compelling, believable figures running the gamut from defiant and laughing off the threat to terrified and cowed.

The men are so recognizable you see versions of them all over the evening news, no matter where you tune in.

Rating: TV-MA, violence, sexual subject matter, profanity

Cast: Amaia Aberasturi, Yune Nogueiras, Garazi Urkola, Jone Laspiur, Irati Saez de Urabain, Lorea Ibarra, with Asier Oruesagasti, Alex Brendemühl, Daniel Fanego

Credits: Directed by Pablo Agüero, scripted by Katell Guillou and Pablo Agüero. A Netflix release.

Running time: 1:30


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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