Apr 22, 2016

Laura Bispuri's "Sworn Virgin" Opening This Weekend

Iconic Italian filmmaker Paolo Taviani (Caesar Must Die) and Laura Bispuri at a luncheon during the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.
Laura Bispuri's sublime quest film, "Sworn Virgin," opens this weekend in New York City.

The textures of Sworn Virgin, glacial mountains and rivers, adamantine canyons, or the slick, tiled ledges of a public pool, and the worn surfaces of a city apartment, are all so palpable that the quest of its unusual protagonist actually resides in the progression from the first of these to the last. Hana’s (Alba Rohrwacher) Albanian-Kanun roots, a culture that dates back to the Middle Ages, and is as unyielding as the rocky peaks of her remote village, compel her at a tender age to relinquish her feminine identity. In a somber flashback, Hana becomes Mark, a “sworn virgin,” a woman who lives as a celibate man. 

Now, she herds goats, smokes, and drinks raki with her male companions, and lives alone in a sparsely furnished cabin. When the film opens, Hana-Mark is free, having escaped the arranged marriage she would have endured living as a woman. She wields a gun, and need not worry, as the village women do, that the bullet given to their husbands by their fathers as a wedding day gift, may be used with impunity against them. Orphaned as a girl, as many heroes are, Hana-Mark lives by the oath she swore before the village’s male elders and Gjergi (Bruno Shllaku), her stepfather and benefactor, to whom she feels a great debt.

As Bispuri’s accomplished first feature unfolds, winter takes hold and Hana-Mark is snowbound. Trapped in her wooden cabin, she tosses and turns on a narrow bed, yearning for the touch of another human being. She soon realizes that her life must change yet again. Convention demands a journey: Hana-Mark crosses a river that will forever sever her from the land that has, up until now, defined her. Literally and figuratively adrift, she travels to Italy to see Lila (Flonja Kodheli), her step-sister, Gjergi’s daughter. The last time the two were together, Hana-Mark pointed a rifle at Lila as she ran down the beach with Stjefen (Luan Jaha), the man she married. Lila was “promised” to another man, and it was Hana-Mark’s duty to shoot her in order to protect their family’s honor.

Sworn Virgin is inspired by a novel of the same title by Albanian writer Elvira Dones. Her protagonist, Hana, is a college student who abandons her studies in order to care for her dying uncle. He lives in a village that follows Kanun tradition, so the unmarried Hana must become a sworn virgin. After her uncle dies, she travels to America to visit her cousin Lila. Like the novel, Sworn Virgin begins in the present, although in Italy rather than America, with flashbacks to Hana-Mark’s childhood spent with Lila and her family, and to her life as a sworn virgin. Bispuri’s contrasting and atmospheric settings, inspired by Dones’s use of geography or environment as a metaphor for her protagonist’s state-of-mind, moves from the frozen, sparsely populated mountains to water, and then to warmer climes and a densely populated city. Like all quests, it is a journey of the heart.

As Bispuri illustrates, sworn virgins are not often lesbians; in fact, the Albanian word translates as “he-she,” an identification of gender, not of sexuality. The tradition still exists in several Serbo-Croatian countries. Girls are sometimes compelled to become sworn virgins so that they may work outside the home and support families in which there are no boys, or to preserve the line of inheritance because women and girls do not own and cannot inherit property under Kanun law. It is this unusual circumstance, in which a woman rejects one patriarchal code that reduces her to chattel, so that she may become a working and contributing member of a patriarchal society, that makes Sworn Virgin a sublime metaphor for a woman’s lifelong quest for individuation. When the film opens, Hana-Mark is in her early thirties, having lived as a sworn virgin for fourteen years.

Since sworn virgins take a vow of celibacy, the threat for men of female sexuality is neutralized, as is the persistent challenge women represent to the myth of male superiority, the foundation of patriarchal societies. Sworn virgins are a fabricated third gender whose promise of celibacy to their male elders includes the acknowledgment that these overseers may murder them if they break their oath. Hana-Mark is compelled to reexamine her former identity, her assumed and unexpressed sexuality, in order to live authentically. On a metaphorical level, as Bispuri eloquently illustrates throughout the film, sworn virgins represent the predicament of all women living in patriarchal societies: if women wish to be contributing members of society, and the equal of men, they must censure their sexuality as Hana does, or at least not use it to their advantage—regardless of their sexual preferences.

If Bispuri’s hero is unusual, Sworn Virgin is nevertheless a classic quest movie, and a rare example of a quintessentially feminine journey. Below is my interview with the filmmaker, which took place at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2015.

I feel that you made this film for all of us women who feel that we have two identities, two halves we have to continually reconcile.

Laura Bispuri: Yes, and maybe more than two lives.

Did you visit Albania to do research?

Bispuri: Yes, but my first encounter with this subject was in reading the book “Sworn Virgin” by an Albanian writer, Elvira Dones, who wrote in Italian. It was three years between the first draft of the script and the premier at Berlin. Two years were spent traveling back and forth between Italy and Albania to study the country. I read novels by Albanian writers and I listened to the music of Albanians who live in Rome. I also went to the mountains to meet the people who live there. I went house-to-house in these five villages to visit as many homes as I could until I found one I wanted to shoot in. Actually, they are hardly villages; it is more like a scattering of houses along a road than a group of villages. By the time I was ready to do the shoot, in Valbona, I had close ties to the people there.

Hana wanted the freedoms that men had as their birthright, but I felt that she also liked the intensely physical work she took on as part of her decision to live as a man. I wonder if you want your female audience to think about what activities they were channeled into as girls, as well as the irony of Hana having to live like a man in order to indulge in the simple physical pleasures of testing her strength and feeling physically free.

Bispuri: A wonderful question. If we start with Hana and Lila as girls, they see the model of womanhood around them as something that does not really belong to them. These are two girls who want their freedom, which is first expressed in the film when we see them running. They’re stopped and punished for it. The law of the mountains is that women cannot behave like that or to run freely. Lila pretends to accept this rule, only in order to escape. Hana is different. She takes a another stance toward it—she reinvigorates herself. Deep inside, she feels okay playing a male role. For instance, she likes the feel of her rifle in her hands. She starts to follow this path that has been blazed for her by her uncle, Lila’s father. Hana owes a debt to him because she lost her parents and he took her in. She is looking for a center to her life and she adopts this male persona. It is an extreme choice. Because women who live as men in this society cannot have intimate relationships, after years of solitude, and after years without any love, Hana-Mark feels like she is turning into stone, like the mountains. Inside herself, she feels the female part emerge. Her body wants to shed this hard exterior. Hana-Mark is a very complex character; she has both genders within herself. In the end, we see her reaching a point of harmony where both of these genders can co-exist and she is able to achieve a kind of freedom. She is in harmony.

There is a feminine solidarity between Hana and Lila that seems to be based on the oppression they suffered in Albania, but also on this shared desire to break away. Is that the way you see them?
Bispuri: I think that at the end of the film Hana and Lila find each other again, and in this rediscovery of each other, there is a return to Albania, and a rediscovery of a kind of melancholy for a land that they both love and to which they are deeply tied, but where they cannot stay. I didn’t want the film to show Albania as being a negative place, and Italy as being a positive one. Instead, I wanted to show how they were both tied to this melancholy, to the women’s shared sense of loss.

There are several triangular relationships in the film, beginning with Hana, Lila and Lila’s father, Gjergi. When Hana arrives in Italy, Lila, her husband and Hana form another triangle. Hana tests and disrupts relationships, but in Italy, Lila and her husband finally respond by giving Hana space to become herself. I found that quite surprising and loving.
Bispuri: In the editing of the film, and in the way the film is put together, there is a parallel between these scenes where Hana, when she’s a little girl, enters Lila’s home for the first time, and she disrupts the equilibrium or balance between Lila and her father because he becomes closer to Hana. Lila becomes a spectator of this relationship. And, yes, once again when Hana-Mark enters Lila’s house in Italy, she disrupts another relationship. It’s always Mark entering Lila’s home. This is a connection I cared about very deeply in the screenplay, and I am happy it came across to you as a viewer. There is yet another element to this triangle when we are in Italy because there is the very important character of Jonida, Lila’s daughter. Hana-Mark definitely disrupts a family balance that exists, but as you say, in the end there is his new apartment, a place where she can go through this transition or passage of gaining greater autonomy, where she can become herself. In that final scene where you see “him” or Hana-Mark with a blow dryer, I think that is a point of arrival where you can see him being at ease with himself.

Your film has very distinct visual textures. Could you speak about how you arrived at them?

Bispuri: I don’t want to sound presumptuous, but the starting point of my film was from a very specific idea of what I wanted the film to look like, the visual language I would use. The general idea was to be as close as possible to reality, to be very natural and very real. Then, on that basis, there are one or two or three moments where there is a kind of heightening of reality, where there are these moments of greater breadth. So, there are these two planes all of the time that are integrated, in order to have these moments of greater breadth built on the basis of realism. The approach that I took, then, was to shoot the whole film in very long sequences, including these moments of greater breadth, even bigger moments than was originally planned in the screenplay, in my search for the truth. I feel this is the most important choice I made. In editing the scenes, I decided to differentiate the two planes of the past and present, so when you are looking at the past, I did cut some of these shots. They are shorter. For the present, I used the long sequence shots. The only moment that is very different is when my gaze is superimposed on the gaze of Mark. What I was guided by throughout the film was this desire to be as close as possible to Mark.

And in the superimposed shot you wanted to show the very programmatic ballet in comparison to the beginning of Hana transformation? 

Bispuri: Yes, that’s right. There is definitely that kind of parallel between the two moments. Synchronized swimming is an interesting sport. All of the women have to be the same, and they have to have their make-up on, even though they are in the water. They also have to be smiling all the time. This shows the pressure on women to be beautiful and perfect, and that is the cage in which women live today. What is also interesting is that women have to fight for this; Jonida is in a competition in the movie for a spot on the team. There is a lot of hard work involved but you can’t see it because it is all under water. As I speak, I realize that these statements are all about my movie but also a description of women’s lives. Of course, there is the aspect of Jonida and Hana-Mark helping each other to be liberated or to be free.