As Hana and Lila aspire to a life they cannot afford, Bispuri pairs their respective consequences. Just after Hana is shown assaulted by the men in the village as punishment for deigning to carry a rifle, Lily is threatened by Gjergj, who makes it clear that things will not work out in her favor if she rejects the conditions of her betrothal.
The film’s title speaks to a beguiling ritual: In exchange for a permanent vow of chastity, women living in the more isolated regions of Albania may adopt the traditional clothing and appearance of a man and enjoy the resultant privileges they wouldn’t otherwise be afforded.
When we first see Hana at the film’s outset, she has already committed to this path, living now as Mark, and traveling abroad for the first time. When Mark arrives at Lila’s apartment in Italy, a decade and a half after the latter had unceremoniously eloped, it becomes quickly apparent that Mark does not have intentions of returning to the place that they both used to call home.
Toggling between the three time periods of pre-teen discovery, young adulthood and middle age, Bispuri uses Hana’s story to underscore the rigidity of female norms across generations and borderlines. When Lila’s daughter Jonida begins to ask Mark about his history (with various levels of insensitivity), their initial friction gives way to the beginnings of a mutual understanding. Aside from a new job at a nearby parking garage, Jonida’s synchronized swimming rehearsals become one of Mark’s entry points into a new way of life.
Although she and co-writer Francesca Manieri adapted “Sworn Virgin” from the Elvira Dones novel of the same name, Bispuri has a keen awareness of the details that best illuminate Hana’s journey. Rohrwacher’s performance anchors this character study, reflecting a lifetime of internalizing as both Hana and Mark. She adapts seamlessly as each step along the journey brings stolen glance and inquisitive stares, all with minimal dialogue. As the elder incarnations of Lila and Mark delicately relive the series of events that brought them both to Italy, their lost years as separated sisters flit around their sparse conversation.
Bispuri also avoids the trap of portraying Mark’s gender-shifting situation in sensationalized terms, instead allowing it to endure gradual change as he reclaims his feminine side. The film also carefully takes into account Hana’s Albanian roots, by condemning a specific set of social conditions, rather than vilifying the culture as a whole.
For much of “Sworn Virgin,” Hana and Mark exist almost exclusively as a counterpoint to the shifting spectrum of feminine identity surrounding them. Rohrwacher grounds that central conflict admirably, but there a handful of moments when those physical manifestations of abstract shifts (the literally removal of the “Mark” label from a parking garage security vest) aren’t quite as delicately underlined.
But between the ensemble work and Bispuri’s assured directorial focus, there’s an impressive economy to this storytelling, connecting these three timelines with subdued moments. Those trips to the aquatic center offer “Sworn Virgin” the opportunity to deliver an ode to the human body. A late-film montage of swimmers in their various states of swimwear emphasizes the idea that basic, binary approaches to classifying individuals has its limits. For a film so rooted in examining fluidity in all its forms, it’s a fitting testament to the power and vitality of personal freedom.
“Sworn Virgin” opens in limited release this Friday.