Sworn Virgin is another of those multinational coproductions but I’m going to call it an Albanian film. The thread of the story is about gender roles in rural Albania, and although it is set equally in Italy, it is Albanian life and culture that we experience. The story is set in two time periods, we see Mark traveling from Albania to Italy and reuniting with his sister and her family after 14 years. We can tell that Mark is actually a woman and we know that Lila, his sister, knows but everyone else is oblivious. We then flash back to Lila and Mark’s teenage years in Albania and we discover the story.Mark was Hana, rescued from the mountains when her parents died by Lila’s father and raised by him and his wife as if she is their daughter. It becomes clear that Hana is a tomboy and wants to ride and shoot and run but girls are not allowed to do this. There are shocking elements to this gender inequality, when Hana persists in carrying a rifle, she is nearly raped by local men in order to teach her not to. When Lila’s father tells her she needs to marry, he hands her a bullet and says, “This is your dowry. It is a gift from your father to your husband in case you ever give him cause for complaint.”
Lila copes by running away to Italy and marrying the man she loves. Hana, who has great loyalty to her adoptive father, wants to stay. Her only option is to become a ‘sworn virgin’, a woman who, in front of the men of the village, swears to remain celibate for life and live and dress as a man. So, we see the origin of Mark and the essence of the story. The parents have died, Hana has moved away and she can now live the life she chooses. It is a slow and painful transition, though, as she tries to navigate what it means to be a woman.
In many ways this film works. Hana is an absorbing character and we totally believe her as someone caught between family and self. The use of flashbacks is sometimes clunky, as is the use of music to create mood. There are some standout scenes – one that stays in my mind is a scene at the swimming pool where the camera swoops and dives across a diversity of bodies and shapes, it is a meditation, I think, on lack of conformity. What was missing for me, though, were the years that Hana lived as a sworn virgin. We are not shown these and it is what I really wanted to know. What did it mean to be accepted as a man? Did it allow her to be more herself, or less?