In a small section of Northern Albania, females in smaller villages partake in a ritual known as becoming a “Sworn Virgin.” By doing this, they swear that they will remain virgins until the day they die, forsaking all romantic or sexual relationships in return for being treated as men. For many females, it’s the only way to survive in the fiercely patriarchal cultures in which they live. Most women are sold into arranged marriages, and in many cases, a father will provide a bullet along with their daughter’s dowry, in case the woman’s husband has any reason to complain.
The idea is one rife with drama, and it’s one that Laura Bispuri mines for her debut feature, “Sworn Vigin”. The film follows Mark (Alba Rohrwacher), a woman who has undergone the change to a Sworn Virgin, as he visits Milan to spend time with his adoptive sister. As he comes to the city, Mark begins to realize that there is no longer anything keeping him from expressing his more feminine side, and slowly Mark begins to transform back into Hana, the woman he was born as. Soon, Mark wears makeup and earrings, even as he continues to wear his more masculine clothing, showing a character trying to bridge the gap between his two genders.
One problem with “Sworn Virgin”, particularly in its later stages, is a distinct lack of stakes. As Mark begins to explore his feminine side, even at one point being called Hana again, the consequences of allowing himself to become a woman are minor. In flashbacks throughout, the iron hand of the patriarchy keeps women in check, but in the modern, sophisticated city, Mark can become Hana again and no one will bat an eye. It provides room for character self-expression, but it’s also a shame, as there’s always a threat of violence in the early stages of Hana’s childhood, and even a fear of death, as to the behavior of the males in town. But as Mark moves to the city, he’s able to move freely without any major limitations.
The film succeeds largely thanks to Rohrwacher’s determined, intriguing turn as Mark. The actress wears a pained expression more often than not, and while this would come off as one-note for most actors and actresses, it’s the versatility of her façade that sells it. I’ve seen few performers use their eyes as well as Rohrwacher, changing an entire moment with a slight squint or widening of her eyes; a dour expression turning to fear, to excitement, in a moment’s quick glance.
“Sworn Virgin”, by virtue of its very premise, has all the makings of an amazing film, and the right pieces are in place to create one. Its somewhat misbalanced narrative, however, and a slacking of tension in the film’s back half, squander some of what could be, creating something that, while a thought-provoking experience, never rises above a pleasant afternoon diversion. Even so, it’s sure to start some interesting conversation, especially in today’s political climate.
Ryan E. Johnson (@atxtheaterguy) is a theatre and film critic from Austin, TX. He enjoys the films of Sion Sono, Wong Kar-Wai, Ingmar Bergman and loves experiencing films told from bold, new perspectives.