An ancient Albanian law known as the Kanun dictates that women can take an oath of celibacy, thus becoming ‘sworn virgins’. They become de facto women in men’s clothes and as such they are allowed to undertake all actives otherwise prohibited to women, like carrying a gun, smoking, talking to other men, singing and acting as head of a household. First time feature director Laura Bispuri explores the life of one such woman, Hana, played by Italy’s wonder Alba Rohrwacher, in Sworn Virgin, based on the novel by Albanian writer Elvira Dones.
Hana (Rohrwacher) is living a solitary life in the mountainous Northern Albania as a man named Mark Doda. Years after the death of both her adoptive parents she decides to travel to Milan where her adoptive sister Lila (Flonja Kodheli) is living with husband Stjefen (Luan Jaha) and daughter Jonida (Emily Ferratello). In this new environment, Hana/Mark rediscovers herself, contemplating the possibility of undoing her vows.
Director Laura Bispuri wrote the screenplay specifically for Rohrwacher, who had to learn Albanian for the role. Her portrayal of Hana/Mark is undoubtedly the greatest strength of the film, and one that mesmerised us. The masculine and feminine are masterfully embodied in Rohrwacher’s Viola-esque performance which is both brutish and delicate, blunt and innocent. In the current transgender hip in media, it is interesting to see another take on the gender discourse: in this case, Hana/Mark needs to rediscover herself as a woman, with her identity as Mark being a social imposition rather than an expression of personal freedom.
It is a shame that such a great performance wasn’t matched by an equally solid script. The writing feels tentative in places, with a long development and an ending which appears rather rushed. We are never quite convinced by Mark/Hana’s motivation for taking such a radical change at this precise moment, rather than years before. Hana/Mark not only rediscovers herself as a person, but also sexually, when she breaks her vow of chastity with swimming pool lifeguard Bernhard (Lars Eidinger). However his role in the overall story is entirely accidental, with his sole function being that of embodying Hana’s sexual awakening.
Framing the film rural, mountainous beauty was DOP Vladan Radovic, which captures well the protagonist’s duality as reflected in nature. Sworn Virgin is possibly not the best film we’ve seen at this year’s LFF but should be watched for Rohrwacher’s performance alone.
Sworn Virgin screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2015 and does not have a UK release date yet.