By Peg Aloi
Luna Nera is mainly produced and written by women and proffers a satisfyingly feminist, woman-centric aesthetic — as witch narratives seem to do more and more these days.
I’ve been enjoying many foreign language offerings on Netflix in recent months. Warning: do not let the default dubbed setting ruin your experience. Switch to subtitles! I’ve had to do this many times and, as a result, my Netflix settings seem to be changing over to subtitles all on their own. Why is dubbing the default? Many viewers don’t want to look away from their smartphones long enough to read subtitles? Seriously, stop multitasking and give the series your full attention! Also, subtitles have the benefit of familiarizing you with foreign languages. Try it.
This five-part Italian language series is set in the 17th century, around the time of the Roman Inquisition, when witchcraft was taken for granted, and blamed for everything from crop failure to disease. Adapted from a novel by Tiziana Triana, Luna Nera (“Black Moon”) is a sort of romantic thriller with horror touches. More important, it is a beautifully designed period piece about witchcraft. It is also mainly produced and written by women and proffers a satisfyingly feminist, woman-centric aesthetic — as witch narratives seem to do more and more these days.
As the story begins, a young woman named Ade (Nina Fotaras, who was also in the 2019 series adaptation of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose) is at home with her grandmother and younger brother. When the old woman attends the bedside of a woman in childbirth, Ade has a vision that the baby is in danger. The child is stillborn and the mother dies. Ade’s grandmother is suspected of trafficking in witchcraft. Things spiral out of control quickly because the grieving father is a local merchant and political leader in the village. He organizes a crew of witch hunters, which includes his own daughter. When his son, Pietro, who has been studying medicine abroad, comes home to find his village in a tizzy about witches, he calmly but firmly tells his father that there are scientific reasons for the things believed to be caused by witches, even the sad death of his own mother (who likely died because she was subject to the dangers we now know befall women who give birth after age 40).
Ade and Pietro meet and there is immediate chemistry. But, because Ade is a hunted witch and Pietro the son of the head witch hunter, the romance would seem to be doomed to failure or at least lost in the coming chaos. Ade goes about in a hood that hides her face to avoid trouble, but circumstances worsen when it is ordered by decree that no unaccompanied young woman may be sold food or given assistance of any kind under penalty of arrest, torture, or worse. The village has a long history of tolerating witchcraft (seen in those days as expressions of pagan and agrarian folklore) but recently such beliefs and practices have been condemned as evil. And yes, the Church is responsible for this shift in attitude. We get a sense in Luna Nera of what it was like to experience these dramatic and arbitrary shifts in custom and behavior, and how frightening it was for the women entangled in the web of fear
The witch hunters call themselves “The Benandanti” which means “good walkers” and their mission is to root out witches and execute them. They wear huge cloaks made of animal skins covered with bones and bits of metal. They also put on frightening masks and paint their eyelids black. The villagers are mostly superstitious and value the Benandanti’s services. What’s more, no one wants to be seen as being sympathetic to the accused witches. Only Pietro dares to speak out in Ade’s defense.
As things become dangerous for Ade, her grandmother tells her to flee the village, and that she will find women who will help her at the edge of the forest. After a hurried goodbye to Pietro, Ade takes her young brother Valente with her. We learn that Ade comes from a long line of witches and that her grandmother is actually her mother, who “magically” aged herself so the witch hunters wouldn’t recognize her. Ade and Valente find a strange secret dwelling, which is only accessible to those who can unlock its mystery. It’s a sort of open air palace where time seems to run differently. Four matriarchs are waiting for them, and they recognize Ade as one of their own. These are witches who have had to live apart from the world, but who wait for others of their kind to come to them for training and protection. I love these matriarch characters and their magical environs, their cool hairdos and gorgeous costumes.
The cast and production values are excellent for the most part. My only aesthetic complaint is that the music isn’t always effectively chosen. The pop tune that comes in during the end credits is catchy enough, but when other pop-style tunes are played elsewhere they’re rather cringeworthy; the one exception is the use of a cover of Keane’s “Somewhere Only We Know” played during a pivotal romantic scene. Apart from that, I very much enjoyed this story, which mines history and folklore and mixes it with romantic drama and occult magic.
The trope of women who are “born” into witchcraft, or descended from long lines of witches, is an increasingly pervasive one; we’ve seen it in The Craft, Charmed, the Harry Potter franchise, and soon in Motherland Forth Salem (premiering March 18). As entertaining as such stories can be, I am skeptical about the messages they send. They suggest that history’s witch hunts were somehow propelled by justifiable persecution of “real” witches—as opposed to women unfortunate enough to be accused, tortured, imprisoned, exiled and/or executed for doing, well, nothing.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.