Review by Justin Goodman
Although the tribes of Northern Albania are patriarchal, there are methods by which a woman may become a respected authority. This method is written about by Elvira Dones, an Albanian writer, whose work is the basis of Laura Bispuri’s debut feature film that shares its name, Sworn Virgin. Sworn Virgin are women who swear chastity in exchange for living as a man; as portrayed in the film’s melancholic and pale mien, this has been noted by some as a transgendering film. This is inaccurate. To see Sworn Virgin as the story of a transgender man ignores the simplicity and often blunt edges of the story being told. In fact, Sworn Virgins is the story of a woman who comes to realize that maleness is required in order to survive the gendered hierarchy of her world. Who, as time passes, and the influence of her father wains, finds herself steadily falling into the womanhood she felt obligated to sacrifice as a child.
In many ways, the film is an expansion on Bispuri’s 2010 shorts, “Blondina” and “Passing Time.” But, while the protagonists of these are androgynous girls with precocious tendencies, Sworn Virgins’ Hana is more rebellious and frightened than precocious. These traits distinguish her from her sister, Lila, who rarely exhibits much character besides as a contrast to Hana’s increasing masculine adaptation: When their father catches them out alone, he drags them back and smacks Lila; after Hana is smacked for trying to defend her, after he promises to kill them if they go out, she and her father become glare ominously at one another. That violence seems to be capable of erupting at any moment is one of the film’s many promises about female experience in a male-dominated culture. It also mean that Alba Rohrwacher (who plays Hana/Mark) is the fulcrum of each scene though, with all the tension building around her silences, whether that be an ambitious motionlessness that reveals nothing of the character or the ability of the actor or the contemplative mirror gazing that reveals both.
Yet childhood is only half of what happens. By the time their grim parents pass on 14 years later, Lila had already run away from an arranged marriage with her childhood Romeo and Hana had become Mark, the sworn virgin. (Through a ritual, I add, involving her standing in the center of a circle of men and having her hair cut). Mark then shows up at Lila’s house under the guise of being a cousin, Lila now a married woman of modest living, faded aspirations, with a willowy husband and a disgruntled teenage daughter. It’s in Lila’s modern Albanian city–shot in an Italian one–that Mark is confronted by his femininity and sexual urges, paralleled by the conflict between traditional cultures and the increasingly dominant western cultures, future and past (with the story flipping between the old and the new), and the norms that produce a language of “he” and “she” to begin with. That so much is tension is encompassed in this small space is delightful. Ultimately, however, disappointing. The film can’t possibly maintain this complexity in its single-minded cinematography and Byronic pacing, with an ending that plays out closer to allegory than genealogy. Without giving much away, the mother leaves a note to the sisters that provides a heartfelt sentiment of dull intent.
Given the way Sworn Virgin concludes, one gets the sense that Bispuri uses androgyny less as a way to make sweeping claims about the less-than-determinate relationship between sex and gender as much a lever to prop up images of women who flail against an overpowering patriarchy. Ignoring the claims of relativism which abound in comparing cultures, Bispuri herself expresses in an interview with City Code that “the original and specific phenomenon of sworn virgins could stand as a universal, contemporary tale.” This is exactly what she has tried to bring to life, with fits and sputters. Not possessing psychologically, the film does manages to capture experience in flickering surfaces, as when Mark emptily stares (yet with possible longing) at a lingerie-wearing mannequin slightly obscured by his reflection. And the question could be, “how does Mark see himself?” But, more likely, is “how can the socially constructed image of a man mask the physical reality of a female body?”