Mountain views, part 2

Laura Bispuri and Alba Rohrwacher on creating characters and transformation.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Sworn Virgin director Laura Bispuri with Alba Rohrwacher who triumphs in her complex portrayal.
Sworn Virgin director Laura Bispuri with Alba Rohrwacher who triumphs in her complex portrayal.

In part 2 of my conversation with Laura Bispuri, the Tribeca Film Festival Nora Ephron Prize winning director for Sworn Virgin (Vergine Giurata), and her star Alba Rohrwacher, we go looking for the character, Alba compares her roles in Saverio Costanzo's Hungry Hearts and Sworn Virgin, the impact of Lars Eidinger in Esther Williams-inspired synchronised swimming is exposed by producer Marta Donzelli, and putting on war paint has new meaning.

Marta Donzelli on Alba Rohrwacher as Mark with Lars Eidinger: "How he frees those ropes in the water is also very metaphoric..."
Marta Donzelli on Alba Rohrwacher as Mark with Lars Eidinger: "How he frees those ropes in the water is also very metaphoric..."

In the isolated mountains of Northern Albania, 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 (Ilire Vinca Celaj) warns Hana (Rohrwacher). Lila (Flonja 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 in Italy.

Anne-Katrin Titze: I would like to talk about the fascinating juxtaposition of the scenes in the mountains with those at the pool in Italy with Lars Eidinger and the Esther Williams-inspired synchronized swimming. I love the scene in which Eidinger’s character and Mark are circling the pool. It says everything we need to know about their relationship without a single word.

A very strong visual moment - snow falling on young Hana (Drenica Selimaj)
A very strong visual moment - snow falling on young Hana (Drenica Selimaj)

Laura Bispuri: That’s a very important scene. In the screenplay it was much smaller. It became, I think, a very deeply moving moment because of the atmosphere that’s created, because of the dance notion that it represents, to narrate something that is now happening as Mark begins his new life.

Marta Donzelli: When we saw the rough cut – that was the scene that really stayed with me. How he frees those ropes in the water is also very metaphoric – from something that is so tense to become soft and …

AKT: And untangled. Another very strong visual moment for me was the snow falling on the two girls’ long hair. And the third detail is the way you hold your knife. It shows where Mark comes from, there’s a hunger for life, too.

Mark (Alba Rohrwacher) confronts Lila (Flonja Kodheli): "For me, acting is about emotion…"
Mark (Alba Rohrwacher) confronts Lila (Flonja Kodheli): "For me, acting is about emotion…"

Alba Rohrwacher: When we were looking for the character, we did some rehearsals – only Laura and me. We made a lot of crazy tentative attempts. There are a lot of movies that talk about women who become men and we didn’t want to do a copy. We wanted to find something.

At one point during costume rehearsals – we were like one person somehow. Sometimes it happens to me when you believe the story and the director, then the character is something that comes from two persons. It’s like we are the parents of Mark.

AKT: And Mark is also more than one person.

Alba Rohrwacher: Yes. So during this rehearsal, that was the moment when I started walking and I felt something very deep. And Laura said “That’s him.” It’s not like it’s in my mind, it’s something very concrete. From that moment, the way he looks, the way he holds the knife is something that was inside. It arrived from the stomach, not from the mind.

Mark in the city: "He holds himself in a prison, like in a jail."
Mark in the city: "He holds himself in a prison, like in a jail."

AKT: The clothes you wear are perfect – the high-waisted pants and shirts.

Alba Rohrwacher: We were very limited but I think sometimes to be limited is something that gives you power. We didn’t try so many things but we knew what we were looking for. It’s not a Hollywood big budget movie.

AKT: There is a scene in which Mark tries out make-up and you put the green eyeliner underneath the eye. It looks surprisingly good – you might start a new trend.

Laura Bispuri: Movies are filled with scenes of women looking in the mirror doing their make-up. I wanted to do something very original and was scared about how I would do this. This scene came about because Alba was doing this instinctively. It was almost as if she was putting on war paint. And I like to think of her as a warrior at that moment.

Mark applies green under eyeliner: "This scene came about because Alba was doing this instinctively."
Mark applies green under eyeliner: "This scene came about because Alba was doing this instinctively."

AKT: Alba, you are in two films at Tribeca this year. Do you see any similarities between these two characters?

Alba Rohrwacher: Maybe when you can find similarities between things that are very far away. For me, one is the Moon and the other is Mars. They are like two planets. In Hungry Hearts, the emotion comes in a very fluid way. The emotion is the thing that she follows. She is very conscious of herself and imposes herself onto the world. I know the truth! I know my emotion! The emotion is the guide.

For Mark, the emotion is stuck. He is like a stone, like the mother says “You will become a stone.” He holds himself in a prison, like in a jail. Someone much more in search of truth, and not imposing his or her truth on others. Both movies tell about very strong characters in society, one is Mark, one is Mina. For me, acting is about emotion, and in terms of emotion they are opposite.

In part 1, Laura explains her preparation with Alba, the importance of location and the possibility of engaging in a reflection that’s much more contemporary on gender roles.

Read what Flonja Kodheli had to say about working on Sworn Virgin and Hungry Hearts director Saverio Costanzo on working with Alba Rohrwacher.

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