Sworn Virgin


Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

Luan Jaha and Alba Rohrwacher in Sworn Virgin
"A wintry, hushed but observant drama set against a truly fascinating backdrop of unusual, ancient cultural traditions." | Photo: Courtesy of Berlinale

This first feature by Laura Bispuri, adapted from the book by Elvira Dones, is a wintry, hushed but observant drama set against a truly fascinating backdrop of unusual, ancient cultural traditions. It is well acted, with Alba Rohrwacher (The Wonders, Hungry Hearts) impressing in an understated lead performance.

Bispuri's story jumps between a present-day Milan and a grey, cold Albania some two decades before. Rohrwacher plays Hana, an orphan who we see being taken in when a teen by a conservative family who are eking out an existence in an Albanian mountain community. This is a harsh land of jagged mountains, thick snow and silent forests, evocatively captured by director of photography Vladan Radovic. We are shown how women’s lives here are rigidly defined by arranged marriages and other rules, accepted and enforced without question. In one scene, Hana’s new mother lays out a list of dos and don’ts for her and her sister Lila (the younger incarnation of the women played by Drenica and Dajana Selimaj), with the emphasis heavily on the “dont’s”. The rules are a stark reminder of the cage Hana is in: “Don’t question a man, don’t speak before a man, don’t even start to think about a man’s thoughts being wrong.” Her adoptive father, though, taken with Hana’s tomboyish qualities (she is adept with his hunting rifle) still at one point hands her a bullet, with the explanation that this bullet is for her future husband, for him to use to deal with her should she give him cause.

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The only possibility of escape from this tradition is to become a "sworn virgin" and live as man, a strange and intriguingvillage practice, with the ceremony coming off as a kind of baptism. Hana had already been made aware of it given her father would often point out the other villagers who had taken this path, with seemingly no objection or disgust ever being raised despite the conservative bent of the region. This is the fate chosen by Hana, or Mark as she becomes known, and her choice is a mysterious one. It seems in part driven by a love of her father and a desire to emulate him - he after all saved her from being abandoned - and partly by the trauma of separation from her more rebellious sister with whom she had a very close and tender relationship. Her sister chooses to flee with a boyfriend for neighbouring Italy. Hana’s escape isn't quite so easy, it is almost the ultimate act of sacrifice, given her refusal to abandon their parents and homeland means finding a new type of freedom without geographically escaping. But new freedoms bring new restrictions. And as Lila tells Mark later when they are reunited years later, can anyone of any gender really grow or live in such a numbing place at all?

Rohrwacher (who bears some resemblance in looks and the way she carries herself to Tilda Swinton) delivers a largely inwards-looking performance, leaving us to interpret the inner angst through slight gestures, physical appearance and movements. It is not entirely certain if the external gender alteration aligns with Mark's inner being - presumably it doesn’t - but the physical cost is made clear. Subduing the breasts for example involves painful, tight binding that rubs Mark's back raw, affecting his freedom of movement, reminiscent somewhat of the foot binding practiced in China in ancient times. Rohrwacher never seems entirely comfortable in her own skin whether playing either gender. This restrained vibe makes the moments where Mark begins to open up, when a trip to Italy reunites him with Lila (played by Flonja Kodheli in the present day), all the more powerful in contrast. What exactly Mark will do, and who he will be, is ultimately left ambiguous, but the journey offers up a compelling observation of the consequences and causes of moving beyond strict norms.

Reviewed on: 19 Oct 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:

Amber Wilkinson ***1/2

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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