The concept being referred to in the title of “Sworn Virgin,” a debut feature by Italian
writer-director Laura Bispuri, belongs to the traditional culture of Albania,
where some of the film takes place. In a rugged, impoverished world where women
are treated as chattel, some escape their hard, gender-determined fate
by claiming the status of “sworn virgins” before a dozen male elders, after
which they don male garb and live as men.
They are then allowed to carry rifles, hunt and engage in
all privileged male activities, except one. They are not allowed to have sex
with either gender. This custom supposedly dates back at least a couple of
centuries and, though now dying is out, is still practiced by some women in
Albania’s remote mountain villages.
The information given above would be a help to any viewer
going into “Sworn Virgin.” As it is, the film obliges viewers to puzzle out the
nature of the sworn virgin tradition, and even at the tale’s end, it may not be
clear. This can only be counted a virtue by those who count obscurity and
bafflement as artistic assets.
The film’s story has three strands, one present-tense and
set in Italy, two set in Albania in years past. All three concern two Albanian
sisters who have chosen different routes for escaping the gender-imposed
hardships of their native culture. Lila (Flonja Kodheli) left Albania for Italy
and a middle-class married life. When we meet her there, she has a teenage daughter
named Jonida (Emily Ferratello).
Years before, her sister Hana (Alba Rohrwacher) chose to
live as a sworn virgin named Mark. When the present-tense story opens, Mark
comes to Italy to visit Lila, still dressed as a man but evidently determined
to start a new life away from her native culture. As we follow her tentative
efforts to do this, the film repeatedly flashes back to the sisters’ lives in
Albania as kids and around the age of 20, before Lila departs.
The first thing to note about the film’s central conceit is
that it makes “Sworn Virgin” part of a long line of movies in which an actor
playing a character who’s supposed to pass as a different gender is completely
unconvincing. Oddly enough, if that’s a failure of sorts, it’s one that
doesn’t detract from the film’s entertainment value and actually jibes with its
thematic thrust. Whether or not we believe the actor as someone who successfully
passes as a male, we get to compare our impressions to those of the people the
character meets, and reflect on the extent to which gender is performance, successful or not.
Though its focus on blurred genders makes it part of a
fashionable trend in movies, the film doesn’t deliver much in the way of
dramatic power or unexpected revelation, and its recurrent time-shifting, while
intellectually apposite, further diminishes its narrative momentum. The most
winning aspects of Bispuri’s approach involve details and subtle dramatic
developments, such as the evolving relationship between Mark/Hana and her
niece, an Italian kid who’s never known Albania. Though the niece is at first suspicious and
resentful of this odd interloper, a sort of complicity emerges between
The tale’s most resonant setting is a public pool where
female competitive swimmers must maintain a very specific high-gloss look, and
where Mark is the one visitor who can never doff his clothes. It’s in a
bathroom there that he meets a guy who comes on to him apparently assuming he’s
a boy—a strange introduction to sex for a woman who would rather not be a
That reality underscores the fact that “Sworn Virgin” is not
the tale of a transgender person. In fact, read from a political angle, its
implicit endorsement of gender birth roles can seem either unexamined or
retrograde, though that may be putting too much weight on its rather simple
Another odd thing is that the sections in Albania (shot in
the aptly named Mountains of the Damned) don’t delve into the role of religion.
Are these folks Christian, Muslim or other, and do the local clerics approve of
or ignore the sworn-virgin tradition? In most conservative rural societies like
this, religion plays a large and central role. But “Sworn Virgin” is not the
first film to give the impression that, in current European art cinema,
religion is the one subject that dare not speak its name.