Film Review: “Sworn Virgin” exposes repressive Albanian custom

This sensitive debut film centers on a real custom in which women take on male identities in exchange for a vow of chastity.

So, apparently this is a real thing. In some patriarchal cultures in northern Albania, a woman can take a vow of chastity, allowing her adopt a male name and appearance, and participate in activities from which women are normally forbidden. These include shooting a gun, smoking and drinking, and basically having any sort of say in anything.

As dramatized in the film “Sworn Virgin,” this does not mean these women are lesbians, or transgender, merely that this is only way they can get around the strict codes of their villages. Crazy, right?

This Italian production stars Alba Rohrwacher as Hana, who shows up on her sister Lila’s doorstep in Rome one day, dressed like a man and calling herself Mark. They haven’t seen each other since Lila fled their hometown years earlier to escape an arranged marriage. As Hana tries to assimilate into modern society, flashbacks reveal the repressive childhoods that she and Nina endured in their Albanian village.

As fascinating as it is to learn about this archaic practice, the real drama in “Sworn Virgin” comes as present-day Mark gradually tries to figure out where his or her identity lies once freed from restrictions. Director Laura Bispuri, in her first feature, sensitively handles the delicate intersection of biological gender, sexual orientation, and simple self-determination. The film never feels either exploitive or preachy.

“Sworn Virgin” was one of the more unexpected pleasures of this year’s Portland International Film Festival, and fully deserving of this return engagement.

(84 minutes, not rated, opens Friday, May 13, at the Clinton Street Theater) GRADE: B+


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