haircut often symbolizes a life change in literature and film, and in “Sworn
Virgin,” when Hana, a teenage Albanian girl, loses her ponytail to become
“Mark,” she makes a considerable decision about wanting to live “as a man.”
Hana is following the law of the Kanun: swearing lifelong virginity so she can
live in the mountain village with the entitlements of patriarchy—e.g., carrying
a rifle. It’s a considerable sacrifice, one that Lila, Hana’s sister, does not
make. Lila has fallen in love with a man, and leaves the village to go live
with him in Italy.
“Sworn Virgin,” which is playing at
the San Francisco International Film Festival and the Tribeca Film Festival, is
an intimate drama that chronicles Mark (Alba Rohrwacher), arriving—unannounced—on
Lila’s (Flonja Kodheli) doorstep after 14 years apart. Their reunion is
complicated by Lila’s inquisitive daughter, Jonida (Emily Ferratello), who
wants to know more about “Mark.” He seems odd to be her mother’s
never-mentioned relative, and odder to be a woman passing as a man.
Director and co-writer Laura
Bispuri’s film, adapted from Elvira Dones’ novel, flashes back and forth to
reveal the nature of the relationship between the two women, and how their
lives have contrasted and overlapped. These scenes are particularly intriguing
in depicting the gender roles and dynamics that are consistently on display in
Rohrwacher, a remarkable actress, makes Mark’s curiosity at the
“modern” world fascinating. He observes Jonida’s water ballet routines at a
local swimming pool, or stares at the shop windows in the fancy Italian malls
as if he was visiting an alien world. One of the best scenes has a gaggle of
screaming girls running—in heels no less—past Mark in a corridor. It
practically mirrors an early scene of him herding goats in the Albanian
mountains. Bispuri allows viewers to make these connections.
“Sworn Virgin” slowly follows Mark
as he integrates into contemporary society, and the film gets more interesting
as his transformation progresses. He asks Lila, “What is sex like?,” and later
has an erotic encounter with a man at Jonida’s pool. When Mark sees the man’s
penis in the bathroom, he encourages Mark to masturbate him, which Mark does.
It’s an intense, revealing moment. Likewise, with Jonida’s encouragement, Mark
tests the waters with bras and make-up, and watching him react to these
feminine items reveals much about Mark’s identity.
The atmospheric “Sworn Virgin” exhibits
a raw, chilly tone as Mark’s transformation unfolds. This may tamp down the
emotional core of the film, but his character is always sympathetic. Moreover,
the themes raised throughout the film regarding shame and gender, bodies and
love, truly resonate.
“Sworn Virgin” premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival Friday, April 17th and then plays again April 18th, 20th and 21st.