In the mountains of Albania, rigid gender roles dominate. But a curious exception exists: some residents born biologically female are permitted to become men if they swear to remain virgins for life. They do this for many reasons: maybe that’s the gender identity they recognized to be true from the start, maybe the family lacks a son and heir, or maybe they simply desire the freedom maleness provides. For Hana, the protagonist in Laura Bispur’s lovely, elliptical, and compassionate Sworn Virgin, all three are true to an extent.
Hana is the adopted daughter of a small family, who was rescued from an unnamed catastrophe that killed her parents. She and her new sister Lila have the rules laid out: you do not go into the woods without a man; you do not speak before or contradict him; you smile but you do not laugh. In short, you know your place.
“Your place.” It’s one of the film’s central themes — who am I, and where? How do I behave, and to what end? The film locates this placeness in the body, but also in the worlds bodies inhabit, and in the people who fill those worlds. Lila flees the stone confines of the mountain village with a lover, but seems slightly mournful for home after relocating and starting a family in Italy. In a formal ceremony, Hana transitions to Marc in order to stay, but is lost in his own way. Later, his dying father encourages him to leave and find his place in the outside world. Marc responds, “This is my place. You are my place.” The phrase lingers, but Hana/Marc’s socially constructed body has its own designs and desires.
He shows up on Lila’s doorstep unannounced. Lila is taken aback, confronted with a place she left behind. Her daughter Jonida is even less enthused, suspicious of this never-before-mentioned uncle (and, in a nice touch, mostly pissed she has to give up her room). Only Lila’s husband seems pleased. Is he happy to have a man in this house of women, someone to drink raki with after dinner, or just welcoming of old-country reminders in a foreign land? The film is no hurry to spell it out. Viewers have to decide.
The rest of the film is Marc’s painful, haunting, and often sweet journey towards a sort of comfort in his own skin. Bispuri fills the frame with arresting images — the mountains breathtakingly invoke the cold impermeability of custom in the early scenes, and Jonida’s synchronized swimming practices showcase the demand for uniformity imposed on women’s bodies even in this new world. The long shots in the pools also imply the tumult that lies beneath the water’s surface, and the performative nature of identity. It’s masterfully done.
By the film’s end, Hana and Marc seem to arrive at an agreement between themselves — we close with an old song in a new place. But things will remain complicated. In a great interview with The Dissolve’s Tasha Robinson, Bispuri says “Hana is a 360-degree female character who travels through femininity in a 360-degree manner by traveling through masculinity. It’s a whole discourse about the body, about the difficulty of being a woman in terms of the body, and the difficult, fatiguing journey women have to take in terms of accepting their own bodies.” What she leaves out — the 360-degree journey is not a renunciation of masculinity, that Marc is not left behind. Things are, as ever, more complicated when bodies are involved. And bodies are always involved.
Recently, Stéphane Delorme, editor-in-chief of French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, said, “There’s a real indulgence in defeat and cowardice and in dealing with exclusively negative feelings. I wrote about lyricism to ask filmmakers to show us they believe in something, that there’s some hope. If people love other people, if they love actors or places, why don’t they film what they love?”
Sworn Virgin is just such a film — it’s a cinema of hope and self-reconciliation, filmed with obvious love. Unlike much of the current landscape, it breathes, pulses, and believes in something, and has the audacity to be vulnerable and conflicted. We need more films like it.