The film Coven of Sisters (Akelarre), directed by Paris-based Argentine Pablo Agüero, which tells the story of the 17th-century witch hunts of young Basque women, has become an international hit. It is now available on Netflix, and that means millions and millions of people all over the world can now watch it from the comfort of their homes. When this happens, like it did with Errementari, it tells us that these stories, which would normally only get a limited release in a few local theaters, are truly interesting to people all over the world.
This film, shot in the Basque Country with Basque actors, again allows the world to take a closer look, from the comfort of their living rooms, at a part of the history and culture of the Basques. Plus, the film shares the Basque language with the world.
Many media around the world are talking about this film and its success, but few are placing the story in its historical context. And the context of this story, this film, cannot be lost, as it is a fictionalized account of what really did happen in the Basque Country.
It takes place in Labourd
The story takes place in the Basque Country. But unlike what many media report, it’s not set in the Lower Basque Country, but rather north of the Pyrenees, specifically Labourd. It is in this Basque territory, famous for its whalers and its corsaires, where the story takes place.
Because we mustn’t forget that Basques are on both sides of the Pyrenees, and that this story just happens to occur north of them. It is therefore, not a story of the “Spanish” or the “French”, but of the “Basques”.
A story against women and freedom
The men of this town, just like in many coastal Basque towns, are on the high seas, whaling off the coast of Newfoundland (“Ternua” in Basques). The women stay behind, in charge of the home, the family, and the fields, just like all women in fishing towns. The women are used to being in charge and making decisions (anyone who knows the women from the coast will understand what we’re referring to. Not that this trait isn’t shared by all Basque women, as a young British woman who lived for a while in the Basque Country explained very well).
These women broke the prevailing stereotype of women in the societies of the Kingdoms of France or Castile, where women were inferior, dominated, and subservient. They were treated like children.
To this, we must add the efforts of the dominant classes of both kingdoms to impose their homogeneous language, customs, laws, and ways of life. The idea that not being like them was “perverse” and “unacceptable” was common to all expansive, colonizing “nationalisms”, such as the French or Castilian (which became Spanish in the 19th century).
Henry III of Navarre and IV of France
This is the king who sent investigators out to Labourd on the hunt for witches. Henry is quite a character. Son of the Queen of Navarre, Jeanne d’Albret, he was baptized a Catholic, but was raised in the Calvinism of his mother. Throughout his life, between his birth and his coronation as the King of France (he was the King of France and Navarre), he converted between Calvinism and Catholicism on many occasions, always driven by his thirst for power, or will to survive.
The phrase Paris vaut bien une messe (Paris is well worth a mass) is attributed to him when he tried to explain his latest religious conversion to Catholicism. He had to be Catholic to be crowned King of France.
It is thought that Shakespeare was thinking of him when he wrote “Love’s Labors Lost”. This play was written about 1598, and the protagonist is a King of Navarre nicknamed “Fernando”. (By the way, Shakespeare made many references to the Basques in his works.)
Navarre shall be the wonder of the world;
Our court shall be a little Academe,
Still and contemplative in living art.
Let’s not forget that this Navarre, the one Jeanne d’Albret and Henry III reigned over, is “Lower Navarre”, the part north of the Pyrenees, because the rest of the kingdom had been conquered by Ferdinand “the Catholic”.
It is this king, the first in the Bourbon dynasty, that sent the investigators to this small coastal town in Labourd.
Pierre de Lancre
He’s the “bad guy” in the story. Well, one of them, the “leading bad guy”. He is a true person in history who essentially did exactly what the film adscribes to him, and most likely many other atrocities.
He is a faithful servant of the King of France who, lest we forget, was already the King of Navarre. And it turns out that Pierre de Lance is the grandson of Bernard de Rosteguy, a wealthy wine grower from Juxue (in Lower Navarre) who emigrated to Saint-Macaire, near Bordeaux.
To get to know his personality, his “human” profile, his entry in the Auñamendi Encyclopedia is well worth a read. He was obsessed with the devil and the intrinsic perversion of the woman, and anything that in any way violated his personal principles of Catholicism. He was also obsessed with power.
For him, everything that went outside the lines of what he considered correct, be it in manner or behavior, is contaminated by evil and was thus the object of witchcraft.
Witchcraft was persecuted in the Southern Basque Country by the Spanish Inquisition, and in the Northern Basque Country by the King’s Men (as in this case).
We urgently recommend reading the Auñamendi Encyclopedia entry on this topic, because it shows the essential characteristics of the persecution the Basques were under from both sides of the Pyrenees, and this was the excuse.
It’s interesting to see how, at the beginning of the 17th century, two great cases of repression began on either side of the Pyrenees.
A movie that’s worth watching
This film has been positively reviewed by most critics. We’re aware that, like with wine, books, and restaurants, an opinion on a film depends on who’s watching.
But we liked it. Nevertheless, we can watch it from another perspective: while watching it, we must be aware of how what we’re watching is a slice of Basque history, a story about how power tried to finish off freedom.
Forbes – 13/3/2021 – USA
‘Coven Of Sisters’ On Netflix: Period Movie On Spain’s Witch Trials
Netflix’s new Spanish film, Coven of Sisters (Akelarre), directed by Argentinian filmmaker Pablo Agüero, from a script written by Agüero and Katell Guillou, is a chilling tale inspired by the witch trials of the 17th century that killed thousands of women and men throughout Europe.
thecinemaholic -11/3/2021 – Canada
Coven of Sisters Ending, Explained
Pablo Aguero’s ambitious, atmospheric Spanish drama ‘Coven of Sisters’ (Also known as ‘Akelarre’) transports the viewer to a dark chapter in the history of the Spanish Inquisition. An engrossing story brilliantly told with captivating photography and entrancing folk hymns, ‘Coven of Sisters’ is a slow-burning period film that will leave an indelible mark in the mind of its audience. Set in the early days of the seventeenth century, the film takes us to the northern Spanish region of Basque, where a witch trial is underway as six girls fall prey to the superstitious schemes of the orthodox monarchy of Felipe III.
GQ – 13/3/2021 – Mexico
Akelarre, la película sobre “brujas” que debes ver este fin de semana
Sí, Akelarre es una historia de brujas. Pero la cinta que estrenó hace un par de días en Netflix y que se posiciona entre lo más visto de la plataforma de streaming, no solo tiene como protagonistas a estos seres del imaginario colectivo, sino también a otros demonios, unos que peligrosamente se niegan a desaparecer.
El Dia – 8/3/2021 -Argentina
“Akelarre”: el terror de los hombres
Corre el año 1609. El juez Pierre Rosteguy de Lancre, quien en sus alucinados textos daría forma al mito del “sabbat de las brujas” (en lengua vasca, el akelarre), recorre el País Vasco francés interrogando a centenares de personas y condenando a decenas de mujeres a la hoguera por supuestos actos de brujería. Encuentra un grupo de mujeres que participaron de una fiesta en el bosque con chicas de otras aldeas: Rostegui las arresta y las acusa de brujería.
Header image: Still from “Coven of Sisters (Akelarre)” (©Lamia producciones)