With a great performance from Alba Rohrwacher, Laura Bispuri’s Sworn Virgin is a stunning but underwhelming glimpse into celibacy in the Albanian mountains.
The Virgin Springby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Bringing to life the Albanian tradition of Sworn Virgins – women who pledge their celibacy in order to live and work as men – Laura Bispuri’s Vergine Giurata is loosely based on the novel by Albanian writer Elvira Dones, charting the journey of one man back to womanhood. The film opens amidst the craggy mountains and turquoise lakes of Albania, as Mark (Alba Rohrwacher) chases after a goat. A crazy but beautiful creature, the comparison is clear enough. Even if it only emerges gradually that Mark is getting rid of her, selling up and trading the harsh life of the mountains for a new one in Milan. Mark’s story is told in flashback, as Hana (still a girl) was saved from the avalanche that killed her parents and brought to live with Lila (Flonja Kodheli) and her parents. Refusing the strict prohibitions and subservience a woman must endure (unable to carry a rifle or eat before a man), Hana leaves hair-brushing and her sister behind and ventures into the forest with her father and a rifle. Unable to choose her own husband, Lila flees for Italy with her lover. And when their mother dies, Mark decides to leave too, trying to find himself again outside of the harsh realities of the Albanian mountains. But in Laura Bispuri’s Sworn Virgin, it’s not exactly clear how. Or even why Hana decided to become a man. And as Sworn Virgin comes to a close, both sexual orientation and female emancipation evaporate, as Bispuri’s film ends with a smile – an unsatisfying conclusion to one unhappy man’s journey back to happiness. It’s a brilliant, tight-lipped performance from Alba Rohrwacher, and Laura Bispuri’s film is visually striking, offering a glimpse into a rare, isolated world. But despite a promising and compelling story, Sworn Virgin fizzles out in a whisper of moody self-restraint.
Sworn Virgin was shown at the 65th Berlin Film Festival and is now showing at the 59th London Film Festival