Mountain views, part 1

Laura Bispuri and Alba Rohrwacher on gender roles and Sworn Virgin.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

 Sworn Virgin (Vergine giurata) director Laura Bispuri with star Alba Rohrwacher
Sworn Virgin (Vergine giurata) director Laura Bispuri with star Alba Rohrwacher Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Laura Bispuri's Sworn Virgin (Vergine Giurata) won this year's Tribeca Film Festival Nora Ephron Prize. Her debut feature stars Alba Rohrwacher in a complex portrayal of life as Hana and Mark with Flonja Kodheli as her sister Lila. On a brisk spring morning in New York, the director and Alba spoke with me about looking for the character, a goat as metaphor, the impact of Lars Eidinger on an Esther Williams inspired synchronised swimming scene, Elvira Dones' novel on which the film is based, traditions and the questioning of gender roles. In the isolated mountains of Northern Albania, the codes ruling the interactions between men and women are strict.

Alba Rohrwacher (Hana):
Alba Rohrwacher (Hana): "I didn’t know about these women who became men to be free."

Anne-Katrin Titze: You found a beautiful way for us to enter your film. We see you, Alba, what looks like hunting a goat and then the mood switches and you hug the goat and say “you are so beautiful.” How did this scene come about?

Laura Bispuri: That scene was actually not in the screenplay. It’s something that I came up with in my conversations with Alba during our preparation. I wanted a scene where Mark was in a very masculine situation. We also see him coming down from that figure of the mountain man that he was. It’s a scene that I care about a lot.

What’s so beautiful is that the goat becomes a kind of metaphor of what’s happening with Mark. The goat is trying to run away, he is untamable, and it takes three people to stop him. In a way that represents Mark who finds himself in a place where he shouldn’t go and who is also untamable.

AKT: Alba, what was your reaction when you first read the story. I suppose you didn’t know about the tradition of the Sworn Virgin before?

Alba Rohrwacher: I didn’t. Laura arrived with the script and the book and this was the way I discovered that kind of reality in the North of Albania. I didn’t know about these women who became men to be free. The book by Elvira Dones is very beautiful. She is a writer from Albania who now lives in the US, I think San Francisco.

Laura Bispuri on Sworn Virgin:
Laura Bispuri on Sworn Virgin: "Movies are filled with scenes of women looking in the mirror doing their make-up. I wanted to do something very original…"

The script was different from the book and also very powerful. I was very impressed. For me it was like a gift. The journey that Mark went into is something very deep for me. I was happy and a little bit scared. She’s Albanian and I really don’t know this reality so I have to be honest and sincere with this kind of character.

AKT: There are, of course, other stories of women disguising themselves as men for a lot of reasons – from Mulan to Yentl. This is different. What is so interesting here is that there is an order in place. It’s not hidden. The structure to switch gender is there. Can you talk a bit about this tradition?

Laura Bispuri: We are not talking about Albania in general but about the Northern part of Albania, high in the mountains close to the border of Kosovo and Montenegro where there is a kind of tribal law, called the Kanun, which regulates every aspect of human relations – marriages, funerals, inheritance. It’s a very patriarchal society built around family clans where the only role a woman has, according to their saying, is to be a vessel who just has to put up with or bear things.

In these villages, which you can’t really call villages, it’s a sort of scattering of homes, a woman can take on this role of being a Sworn Virgin by taking this vow before the elders of the community. Even today, there are still somewhere between 50, maybe 100, Sworn Virgins in the area. For the most part they are very loyal to the oath that they take. They lead a very tough, very isolated life. They are creatures that have both genders in them, both the masculine and the feminine. At the same time, of course, they are individuals who each might have taken this oath for a different reason. They are very fascinating and mysterious people.

Flonja Kodheli (Lila) Alba Rohrwacher (Mark):
Flonja Kodheli (Lila) Alba Rohrwacher (Mark): "The film gave me the possibility to explore this subject matter, which in a way is very rough."

AKT: Is that an actual Sworn Virgin in the film during the scene at the market?

Laura Bispuri: Yes, in the beginning and at the market.

AKT: The film questions gender roles in a much deeper way than most movies do. And with humor – the fact that Mark has a to-do list that says - get a dress; - speak more Italian…

Laura Bispuri: The starting point of the film, this very specific story that takes place in the mountains of Albania, that gave me the possibility to engage in a reflection that’s much more contemporary. I am very fascinated by the human beings we see more and more in our cities who are neither male nor female, who are both, male and female.

The film gave me the possibility to explore this subject matter, which in a way is very rough. I wanted to do this in a manner that is very delicate, that allowed me to question these roles in order to arrive at a broader concept and freedom. That is encapsulated in that final dialogue where they talk about the freedom of self-acceptance that goes beyond a discussion of gender roles.

Alba Rohrwacher (Mark):
Alba Rohrwacher (Mark): "The journey that Mark went into is something very deep for me."

In part 2, looking for the character, Alba Rohrwacher comparing her roles in Hungry Hearts and Sworn Virgin, the impact of Lars Eidinger in Esther Williams inspired synchronised swimming and putting on war paint.

Read what Flonja Kodheli had to say about working on Sworn Virgin.

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

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