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.

Apr 20, 2016

Tribeca Filmmaker Interviews

Jenny Gage, director of the documentary "All This Panic"
See my Tribeca Film Festival coverage under "Feature Articles, Print/Online" (to the left of this column), which consists of interviews with the directors of three documentaries, "All This Panic," "Pistol Shrimps," and "Southwest of Salem."