Growing up is never the easiest thing in the world. Growing up a girl can prove especially difficult in certain parts of the world. In Sworn Virgin, that particular part of the world is Albania, and growing up means a struggle to make sense of traditional gender roles.
A tale of two sisters, the film begins with the re-uniting of Hana & Lila (portrayed by Alba Rohrwacher and Flonja Kodheli) in Italy as adults. Oddly enough, neither actress is Albanian, though both certainly make the prospect believable. Although given the name Hana at birth, Hana is now known as Mark, and all is slowly made clearer through glimpses at the pair’s childhood; a time when Hana found the traditional woman’s role to be a restrictive bore. Through Hana’s longing to be like her father and her father’s longing for a son, she undergoes a right of passage to become recognized by the community as a gun-wielding tomboy considered a man, while physiologically remaining a woman. This small ceremony carries heavy implications and offers explanation for the film’s title; in undergoing such a ritual, Hana becomes officially recognized as Mark and as such must become a ‘sworn virgin,’ pledging himself to a life of celibacy.
This brings into focus Mark’s confusion and difficulty in understanding the modern world, not to mention him/herself. Added to all this is the contrast between Lila’s current urban Italian lifestyle and the sisters’ upbringing in the rural Albanian countryside. Whereas Mark seemed sure of his new gender role in the countryside, relocating to the city — not to mention an altogether different country — gives rise to new uncertainties as Mark uses the men’s restroom but finds himself attracted to another man. Mark’s suggested past and Lila’s daughter’s current role as serious swimmers plays an important role in suggesting the fluidity rather than rigidity of gender and sexuality, and becomes the primary setting for Mark’s journey of self-understanding.
Cinematographically, the film is a work of almost typical art-house cinema fare, often overdramatic in its unnecessarily shaky camera movement, yet one shot stands apart with exceptional executional grace. As the swim hall begins to close down, the object of Mark’s desire — a lifeguard played by a near-silent Lars Eidinger — collects the pools’ dividing lanes as the hall’s final swimmer pushes on slowly and Mark watches contemplatively. It is a scene of pure cinema, conveying all of its conflicted emotions through a slow temporal progression and silent gazes. The shot alone is a work of great artistic integrity, but it is regretfully unique in the context of Sworn Virgin as a whole.Return to Our Berlinale 2015 Coverage
1 hour, 30 minutes
Alba Rohrwacher, Flonja Kodheli, Lars Eidinger, Luan Jaha, Bruno Shllaku, Ilire Celaj, Drenica Selimaj, Dajana Selimaj and Emily Ferratello