Review: Sworn Virgin (Bispuri, 2015) – SFIFF 2015

Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

Sworn Virgin, which won the Golden Gate New Directors Prize at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, is now my second Albanian film of the festival (and also of my life). This drama about a woman from a remote region of Albania who swears her virginity in order to live as a man (and assume a man’s freedoms) provides a fresh perspective on gender-bending, cross-dressing, and all the familiar gerunds typically used in this context. Even before I watched this movie my friend had told me about the Albanian tradition of females adopting male identities, a cultural phenomenon she had learned about in sociology class. It sounded intriguing back then–the notion that a male-dominated society would sanction, even institutionalize, the act of changing one’s gender–but I never imagined I would soon see it realized in film.

The movie opens with shots of Hana/Mark (Alba Rohrwacher, also in this festival’s The Wonders), in the clothes and haircut of a man, living alone amidst breathtakingly scenic mountains. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that, as a young girl, Hana is rescued by a neighbor, Gjergj (Bruno Shllaku), from a disaster that claims both of her parents’ lives. Gjergj and his wife Katrina (Ilire Vinca Celaj) take Hana in and raise her alongside their own daughter Lila (Flonja Kodheli, from Bota). For the most part, the flashbacks focus on the huge discrepancy in the way males and females are treated in the village. One telling scene shows Katrina intoning the repressive rules of their society, which essentially boil down to the notion that a woman’s value rests solely in the service she provides to her husband. Though inseparable as only bestie-sisters can be, the divergent ways in which Hana and Lila cope with the constraints of their deeply patriarchal culture eventually drive a wedge between them, dividing them for over a decade.

Though Western audiences may find it shocking to find this example of modern-day institutionalized misogyny (especially in a country that recently became a candidate for accession to the European Union), there are nonetheless no “bad guys” in this story. Perhaps that would not have been true had the film been from Lila’s perspective, but Hana/Mark honors her foster parents, reveres her mountain village, and respects its people. The only problem is that she is quite, quite lonely. That loneliness finally leads her to seek out Lila in Milan, where Lila has made a new home and a new life for herself.

Sworn Virgin is ostensibly a tale about a person’s quest for liberty and the ways in which that liberty is a slippery thing, perhaps requiring her to trade one prison for another. Yes, that is one strand of the tale. Another strand has to do with sexual identity. At one point, Lila’s daughter asks Mark, “So what are you, a faggot? Or are you a cross-dressing lesbian?” Of course, Mark is neither. (As if the shades of gender and sexuality aren’t graded enough already.) The strand that weaves them all together, however, is the one about friendship and family. (But that statement makes the film sound much more sentimental than it is. There is perhaps one sentimental moment–at the end–but the rest is fairly blunt and unflinching.) The family that Gjergj, Katrina, Lila, and Hana form defies easy characterization. What is kin? Who is the “truer” daughter–the biological one who runs away, or the fostered one who becomes a valued son?

In trying to understand why this film was chosen for the New Directors Prize above others that seemed more polished (El Cordero), bolder (The Tribe), or subtler (Bota), I concluded that Sworn Virgin has the more interesting story (and the one that probably most resonates with a San Francisco audience). Its flaws–choppy editing for the flashbacks, sudden and implausible emotional shifts in the characters, a tendency to sensationalize the repression it depicts (not that I don’t believe it exists at that level, but I quibble with the way the film presents it with a sledgehammer rather than a chisel)–nevertheless do not diminish its ability to enthrall. Much of the credit for that goes to the cast, who all give convincing and fluid performances.

At any rate, I was happy to overlook most of Sworn Virgin‘s imperfections, so  riveted was I by Hana’s life. I guess good stories still go a long way.