Sworn Virgin


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Luan Jaha and Alba Rohrwacher in Sworn Virgin
"Bispuri is interested in how escape from one form of repression seamlessly flows into another." | Photo: Courtesy of Berlinale

The exploration of sexuality tends to be confined to dramas chiefly concerned with coming of age or coming out, so Laura Bispuri's film about a woman's rediscovery of her sense of self offers a refreshing take on the idea. Her film draws on Albanian tribal Kanun laws and tradition - with their strong underpinning on the maintenance of "honour" - for its distinctive identity.

It focuses on Hana (Alba Rohrwacher), a young woman who is, with the blessing of her community, living as a man under the name of Mark. Flashbacks show her as a young tomboy taken in by a family in the foothills, her strong bond to her "sister" Lila (the childhood pair are played by real-life sisters Drenica and Dajana Selimaj) and adoptive father (Lars Eidinger) evident. For reasons revealed through the course of the film, however, she elects to live as the "sworn virgin" of the title, an Albanian practice that involves women renouncing all love and sex and taking on the mantle of a man. Interestingly, once the ceremony is complete, the woman has complete equality with the other men in the village - parity that comes with the price of relinquishing all sense of her own sexuality.

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Bispuri is interested in how escape from one form of repression seamlessly flows into another as Mark, now in her late 20s, begins to have doubts about her choice, heading down to the alien territory of Milan and her sister (Flonja Kodheli) in a bid to find an identity that she wants purely for herself. Her sister, now a mum with a teenage daughter, Jonida (Emily Ferratello), gives Mark a cautious welcome as she begins the tentative process not just of recovering the identity of the lost teenage Hana but shaping it into something new and adult.

The idea of femininity shown by Bispuri is complex. One end of the scale is exemplified by the doll-like make-up sported by Jonida as she competes at synchronised swimming, itself in sharp contrast to what could be considered an almost masculine physicality required to be good at the sport. At the other end of the spectrum lies Hana, who has to make notes on blackboard encouraging herself "not to drink like a man" and initially finds the wearing of a bra as uncomfortable as the strapping she previously used to restrain her chest.

Rohrwacher plays Mark/Hana as an innocent abroad and treads a fine line between what could be considered male and female traits. Her body language has a firm masculine feel but remains pensive, especially as she begins to embrace her long-dormant female desires. Against her, Ferratello gives a sparky and notable performance as the precocious Jonida, as assured in her notions of feminity as Hana is bewildered, while Kodheli also finds plenty of nuance in her role as Hana's non-sexual soulmate, her more conventional female lifestyle also demonstrating the restrictions of a modern society.

Bispuri and her co-writer Francesca Manieri emphasise the real, using traditional Albanian ceremonies - in particular a male-dominated funeral rite - to give a strong sense of place, with cinematographer Vladan Radovic finding good contrast between the cool blues of the village and warmer cityscapes. The scenes involving the young Hana and Lila - the sisters are both non-professionals - also have a strong documentary feel and it's obvious that a real-life sworn virgin features on a couple of occasions. Despite its grounding in a very specific set of circumstances, the film's themes of identity have a universal appeal that should see this film make a firm mark on the festival circuit, where Bispuri's non-judgemental approach and Hana's ambiguity will no doubt invite lively post-screening debate.

Reviewed on: 05 Mar 2015
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A woman who has taken an oath to live as a man rediscovers her sexuality.

Read more Sworn Virgin reviews:

Owen Van Spall ****

Director: Laura Bispuri

Writer: Laura Bispuri, Francesca Manieri, inspired by the book by Elvira Dones

Starring: Alba Rohrwacher, Emily Ferratello, Lars Eidinger, Flonja Kodheli, Luan Jaha, Bruno Shllaku, Ilire Vinca Celaj

Year: 2015

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Albania, Kosovo

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