‘Sworn Virgin’: Berlin Review

Vergine Giurata
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
A complex subject handled so delicately it sometimes lacks teeth

Alba Rohrwacher plays a young woman forced to pose as a man in Laura Bispuri’s feature bow

The question of body, gender and sexuality is one of the most explored themes in contemporary cinema and has taken a myriad of forms, from Lucia Puenzo's XXY to the Afghan tale Osama. In brief, it's hard to find new things to say on the subject. Sworn Virgin (Vergine Giurata) taps patriarchal Albanian tradition to ask whether renouncing sex can ever be the path to personal freedom. The answer is pretty clear.  Award-winning short filmmaker Laura Bispuri has made an impressive leap into Berlin competition with this well-made feature bow, where critical response should be encouraging and help this small, special film find its niche.

The presence of Alba Rohrwacher, who has risen to become one of Italy’s top international actresses, is a major asset in the role of a silent, cross-dressing Albanian girl. The curious premise is based on a tradition of the Albanian mountain people, one few viewers will have heard of. In these remote communities, men are the dominant sex and women are expected to bow their heads and place themselves second in every situation. The only way for a girl to obtain a man’s freedom is to permanently renounce her femininity and to swear never to have sex, in a creepy ceremony in front of the stone-faced men of the village.

Structured as a series of flashbacks, the story jumps from subsistence-level living in the snowy highlands of Albania to the greater freedom of a modern Italian city. Hana (played as a teenager by Drenica Selimaj) has been adopted into a family that has no sons, only the daughter Lila (Dajana Selimaj). The two are inseparable until Lila elopes with her beau to Italy to avoid a husband of her father’s choosing. Hana stays behind. She has made up her mind to shoot a rifle and go where she pleases, even at the cost of cutting her hair, binding her breasts and donning unattractive menswear. She becomes “Mark” and assumes the eunuch-like life of an older member of the village, “Pal,” who was also “once a woman.”

But virginity is not forever. After the death of her adoptive parents, Hana-Mark (Rohrwacher) takes a ferry to Italy and turns up on Lila’s doorway.  The now older Lila (Flolnja Kodheli) and her husband make room for her to stay, despite the hostility of their whining teenage daughter, Jonida (Emily Ferratello). It is the girl who finally pops the obvious question, “Are you a fag, or a cross-dressing lesbian?”  True to form, Hana keeps mum.

For such a bold subject and setting, the film oddly shies away from violence. We aren’t even shown the animal Hana proudly shoots off-screen, and when she is threatened by a group of men, the menace evaporates bewilderingly soon. It’s hard to imagine a character in Hana-Mark’s situation that doesn’t get into serious onscreen trouble. Instead, her growing awareness of her own sexuality is given all the time it needs to emerge in a completely natural way, which makes for a quiet film without much tension.

Rohrwacher has some of the charisma of a young Tilda Swinton in the role, and conveys a convincing masculine attitude without overdoing it. But her face is far too Pre-Raphaelite feminine to ever be taken for a man, and it is puzzling when someone makes this mistake. Her first encounter with the broad-shouldered swimming pool manager Bernhard (Lars Eldinger) appears to play on his misunderstanding of her true gender, and one imagines that later he must have a Mona Lisa moment in reverse; but perhaps in the swinging society of northern Italy, anything goes.

Uncertainties like these arise because the dialogue is affectedly scarce, too scarce to sustain and deepen the story psychologically. It feels like every script-reader in the Italian-Swiss-German-Albanian-Kosovo coproduction cut out a line of dialogue in each scene, leaving behind an irritating silence and an enigmatic puzzle for the audience to second-guess.

Bispuri does have a notable talent in conveying physicality on screen. There is a lot of flesh on view, but the nudity is never gawked out. Most of it hails from the scenes of Hana accompanying Jonida to her synchronized swimming class. It’s a nice metaphor: all the girls in identical swimsuits trying to be as similar to each other as possible. But in another revealing scene, the camera glides over the bodies of old and young swimmers, flabby and trim, one with full-body tattoos. Diversity rules.

The film is nicely lensed and Nando Di Cosimo's melodious score is boldly turned on and off to step up the emotion.

Production companies: Vivo Film, Colorado Film, Bord Cadre, Match Factory Productions, Era Film in association with Rai Cinema

Cast: Alba Rohrwacher, Flonja Kodheli, Emily Ferratello, Lars Eidinger, Luan Jaha, Bruno Shilaku, Ilire Celaj, Drenica Selimaj, Dajana Selimaj

Director: Laura Bispur
Screenwriters: Francesca Manieri, Laura Bispuri
Producers: Marta Donzelli, Gregorio Paonessa
Director of photography: Vladan Radovic
Production designer: Ilaria Sadun, Tim Pannen
Costume designer: Grazia Colombini
Editor: Carlotta Cristiani, Jacopo Quadri
Music: Nando Di Cosimo
Casting: Francesca Borromeo
Sales: The Match Factory
No rating, 90 minutes