Women are well represented at this festival with almost a third of the films directed by women. Bravo to Tribeca for their selections. Kate and I both saw and loved Laura Bispuri’s debut feature Sworn Virgin which has already been picked up for international distribution.
In northern Albania there is a five hundred year old tradition that permits a woman to assume a male role within her community. These women (“burrnesh”), also known as sworn virgins (“virgjinat e bitumen”), give families without male offspring or who had lost their men to war the opportunity to still have a male to head the household. The woman cuts off her hair, puts on a man’s wardrobe, and binds her breasts. To seal the deal she is required to take an oath of celibacy. Dressed as a man, she can carry a gun, drink in public, and has the right of primogeniture having more freedoms in her village than she would have had if she had stayed in her skirts. She is now addressed as he. In her film Sworn Virgin, Laura Bispuri uses this practice of gender transformation to explore the relationship between gender identity and freedom. It is an engrossing gender bender of a film.
Sworn Virgin opens in the austere but beautiful mountains of northern Albania. Mark, played by the Italian actress Alba Rohrwacher, works as a sheep herder and lives a solitary life. Using flashbacks, we learn that as a child Mark was a girl known as Hana. After the death of her parents Hana was adopted by another family. This family has a younger daughter Lila and as young women Hana and Lila both are taught that once they marry they will a be treated as chattel by their husbands and allowed few freedoms. The prohibitions placed on women seem intolerable to both girls. Hana likes to use a gun and hunt, chop wood, and roam freely in the surrounding hills. She fears an arranged marriage and the subsequent servitude of married life. Lila also dreads the future that awaits her. Both young women choose different paths. Lila runs off to Italy with a young man she fancies leaving Albania and her family behind. Hana stays and is offered the role of a sworn virgin and given the name Mark.
Mark has been honor bound to remain in Albania but after his adoptive parents die he travels to Italy to find Lila. Surprisingly, Lila is not overjoyed to see Mark who represents the old ways she left in Albania. She is afraid that Mark will upset her adolescent daughter Jonida who knows nothing about sworn virgins or life in Albania. But, it is the daughter’s adolescent honesty and interest that help awaken Mark to his identity.
The freedoms won in Albania have left Mark still feeling constrained as symbolically he takes off the coarse muslin band he has worn to bind his breasts from view. Writing this I struggle with my pronouns which is the essence of what this film is about. Sworn Virgins is a wonderful, powerful film and Rohwacher is an amazing actress.
Hana accepted her gender transformation ... now can Mark do it too?
About the Author: Barbara Castro is a Family Mediator and is currently working on a film project to introduce divorcing families to the benefits of mediation rather than litigation. She reviews films at the New York Film Festival and the Tribeca Film Festival for The WIP.