Virgin territory

Flonja Kodheli on Sworn Virgin and life in regions of Albania.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Alba Rohrwacher (Hana) Flonja Kodheli (Lila) in Laura Bispuri's Sworn Virgin
Alba Rohrwacher (Hana) Flonja Kodheli (Lila) in Laura Bispuri's Sworn Virgin

The Tribeca Film Festival Nora Ephron Prize winner, Sworn Virgin (Vergine Giurata), directed by Laura Bispuri, co-written with Francesca Manieri, from the novel by Elvira Dones, stars Alba Rohrwacher with Flonja Kodheli as her sister Lila, Ilire Vinca Cela as their mother, and Lars Eidinger as pool guardian.

In the isolated mountains of Northern Albania, the codes are strict ruling the interactions between men and women. Bispuri's sharply crafted first feature lays out the dictates in images that share and combine the rough beauty of the land with the oppression lying beneath. Women and donkeys carrying sacks of rubble up the flinty mountains. Men go hunting in the woods, drink a fiery alcohol called Raki, and howl collective chants when one of them dies.

Flonja Kodheli:
Flonja Kodheli: "Lila doesn't seem so happy. At least she isn't married to someone she doesn't love." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Women aren't allowed in the woods alone, can't shoot guns, and always choose second. There is a system in place if a woman wants to live like a man. Unlike the Little Mermaid, she does not have to give up her voice or take every step as though walking on knives - she has to become a Sworn Virgin instead. "You'll become a piece of rock, my child," the foster mother Katrina (Vinca Celaj) warns Hana (Rohrwacher). Lila (Kodheli) has a different plan for herself and flees to Italy. Moving back and forth in time, we see the relationship evolve between Lila and Hana, who has become Mark when she visits her sister.

At the Istituto Luce Cinecittà Soho House brunch for the Italian Delegation in New York for the Tribeca Film Festival, attended by Alba Rohrwacher, Laura Bispuri and Sworn Virgin producer Marta Donzelli, I spoke with Flonja about her approach to the character, her own Albanian roots and what it means for women to be free.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Albania is not the most exposed country in film. You are originally from Albania?

Flonja Kodheli: I left Albania in '93 and moved to Brussels with my family. Then I lived by myself in Paris for ten years. Now I am back in Brussels.

AKT: Did you know about the tradition of the Sworn Virgin that exists in the remote mountain regions?

FK: I heard about that but it was very very far from me. It was like a legend. I didn't know that they really exist. We have that word for Sworn Virgin in Albanian.

AKT: What is it called?

FK: Burrnesha. You say Burrnesha to a girl, to a woman who is strong. So I knew the word. We'd use it in the context - "you're a Burrnesha, don't worry about it." But I didn't know that much about it because I left Albania when I was a child. The region this is from is way up north, close to Kosovo.

AKT: Tell me about your character Lila. She remains a bit of a mystery.

Lila (Flonja Kodheli) with Mark (Alba Rohrwacher):
Lila (Flonja Kodheli) with Mark (Alba Rohrwacher): "We have two different ways for women to react to be free."

FK: I think Lila is someone who is always hiding something. When she is in Albania, she is hiding the desire to run away from Albania. When she is in Italy, she hides probably the pain, the guilt of leaving everybody, everything. It can be something mysterious about her. Then she is a nurse in Italy, which is very innocent. When she makes that decision to go to Italy it means that she is not taking care of her parents. Going to Italy to become a nurse…

AKT: With the man she loves…

FK: … of course. The two things that pushed her to go away - first, this marriage where her father says she has to marry someone she doesn't even know. And second, that she realises her sister is becoming a man, which is like a betrayal.

AKT: The scene with the father is very strong. He shows Lila the bullet he is going to give to the future husband to use if she doesn't behave.

FK: That's when it clicks. She knew that she didn't want to have the same life as her mother and the women in the mountains. When she sees this bullet, she knows now it's over. I have to escape, I want to be free.

AKT: The film asks the big questions about what gender means.

Flonja Kodheli on Lila with Mark:
Flonja Kodheli on Lila with Mark: "I think Lila is someone who is always hiding something."

FK: Yes and what it means for women to be free. It doesn't mean necessarily being happy. I mean, in this case, Lila doesn't seem so happy. At least she isn't married to someone she doesn't love. This for her is the freedom - of being with the man she loves.

AKT: There is also her daughter. And the possibility to have her sister come stay with her?

FK: Well, well, well, well, the sister when she comes, that's really difficult for her. Because it's the first time that she sees Mark. When she left, she was still Hana. So she sees Mark as a Sworn Virgin and she has in front of her everything that she wanted to forget.

AKT: About herself as well, perhaps? That maybe if the man she loves weren't there, it could have been an option for her? Instead of marrying the stranger with the bullet?

FK: Hana thinks that being free is becoming a Sworn Virgin and for Lila, being free was escaping. We have two different ways for women to react to be free.

AKT: These are the options - becoming a man or escaping.

FK: We have two destinies of women, totally different and two visions of life.

Encore Nora Ephron Prize screenings of Sworn Virgin at the Tribeca Film Festival will take place on Sunday, April 26 at 2:30pm and 8:30pm - Regal Battery Park Stadium cinema 4.

Coming up conversations with Sworn Virgin director Laura Bispuri and star Alba Rohrwacher.

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