Wednesday, 14 October 2015

BFI Film Festival - Sworn Virgin

One of the section in the festival is called 'Journey'. This section usually has some interesting stories and usually the stories are not about a an actual journey in terms of travel, they are personal, physical, emotional and internal. Sworn Virgin is Laura Bispuri first deature film, unfortunately she wasn't able to attend my particular screening, but the producer was there and explained how Bispuri came across this story, as the film was based on a novel of the same name by Elvira Dones. She said that this was a story that Bispuri needed to tell.
Sworn Virgins are "women who take a vow of chastity, wear mens clothing and live as a man in the patriarchal northern Albanian society." Women also have known to become Sworn Virgins in Kosovo, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, parts of Croatia and Bosnia. According to National Geographic's Taboo, there are supposedley less than 102 sworn virgins today.
This film is about Hana who is taken in my another family in her village after her parents die. Her adopted father, Arten, recognises something in her after watching her chop wood and fire a gun. After her sister Lila runs away from an arranged marriage to be with the man she loves, Hana makes the descision to become a sworn virgin. Fourteen years later Hana, now known as Mark leaves her village in the Albanian mountains and travel to Italy to see her sister. Their reunion is awkward and uneasy at first but slowly and calmly, Mark starts to question her/his new surroundlings. Accompanying Lila's daughter to the swimming pool, Mark/Hana has her first sexual encounter. She gets a job and her own flat. She makes a list of things she needs to do, one being buying a skirt. There is hope by the end that Hana can finally be someone she is happy to be.
There are some beautiful shots of the mountains and the village which are mostly seen in flashbacks to Hana and Lila's oppressive sheltered childhood and young adulthood. The girls are continuously told what they can and cannot do. Their father even says that he has to include a bullet with Lila's dowry just in case her husband is not satisfied with her. The open space and the views are contrast to the freedom that the scenes in Italy provide. The city, with all the buildings and vehicles, provides more freedom to Lila and Hana, both having their own reasons to leave/escape Albania.
The producer talked about a culture clash which I thought was brilliant. How traditions in Albania trancend to outside a community and how its perceived was interesting as although the oppression of women was obviously established, there was also kindness and understanding when Arten, Hana's father didn't punish her for wanting to earn her keep, instead he nutures her interest and skills, even against some villagers wishes. It was also mentioned in the Q&A that Alba Rohrwacher, who is Italian and plays Hana/Mark took the script and learnt Albanian until she was word perfect. Committing to this role was necessary and it paid off.
Rohrwacher was unbelievably subtle and brilliant in her performance but conveys everything about what the character is feeling. She seems unhappy throughout the film, unable to be comfortable. Her way out of oppression is to become a sworn virgin, then when she feels trapped, she leaves familiar surroundings to be lost in another place. As she slowly starts to embrace being a woman, baby steps, like trying on a bra for the first time is painful, even though the bandages she wears make her itch, this all seems too much. But by the end, she is different, small things, like a light colours shirt, faint make up, earrings, her hair worn ever so slightly different makes her transition, not complete but it is obvious she is on her way to discover what she wants from her life.

It was, what I call, a quiet film, and after all the big noises, it was felt good to see this woman's journey of self discovery shown in such a delicate way.


  1. Being a sworn virgin sounds like a torturous existence. The movie sounds incredibly interesting. Great review.

  2. Thank you! How its portrayed in the film makes it look like you are constantly uncomfortable in your own skin. I was reading about the history of the sworn virgins, its interesting but so difficult. I might seek out the book.

  3. Andrew Ellington14 October 2015 at 14:13

    This sounds like something I really need to see. Great review. That constant discomfort you speak of can create something special, something honest. I love seeing that in a movie.

  4. Thank you! It did feel very honest and I think that's quite difficult to creat, Rohrwacher was very good and her dedication to the role showed.