Alba Rohrwacher in Sworn Virgin (Strand Releasing)

Alba Rohrwacher in Sworn Virgin (Strand Releasing)

In light of recent current events, a film about the struggle to understand and come to terms with one’s gender and sexual identity is more than timely. Italian director Laura Bispuri explores such questions, following the journey of Mark (Alba Rohrwacher), an Albanian man who had renounced his female gender and taken a vow of chastity as a teen to escape a life of servitude. After years of living alone in the isolated snowy mountains, Mark travels alone to Milan to see his adopted sister and her family after 14 years apart. As Mark comes to know what life is like for women in the big city, he questions if it’s time to return to being female.

After his family has passed away, Mark leaves Albania for Italy, arriving unannounced. His sister, Lila (Flonja Kodheli), lives with her husband and teenaged daughter, Jonida (Emily Ferratello), and is quite shocked to see Mark after all these years. As a young girl, Lila’s family adopted Mark, then known as Hana, after her parents died. Hana and Lila became like sisters, and quickly they learned together that living as women on the mountain would be a hard life.

Told in flashbacks that abruptly move back and forth in time, Lila’s father recognizes that Hana stubbornly refuses to conform to a traditional role. He tells her about sworn virgins, men who were once women but who renounced their gender in order to live freer lives on the mountain. Hana latches onto this idea quickly, not interested in men sexually and wanting to stay in the family and not be constrained by becoming someone’s wife and mother. After Hana becomes Mark, Lila’s father adopts Mark as his son.

Lila, on the other hand, escapes by running away to the city with her boyfriend, whom her father disapproves, leaving Mark behind. As Mark lives with the family, he becomes especially close to Jonida, who is at first skeptical of this new relative she never heard of before. Through observations of Lila and Jonida, and through her own developing feelings and desires, Mark considers shedding her current identity in exchange for Hana from his past. The film’s quite melancholic, as Mark is silently ponders his place, though there’s a bit brightness found in the final minutes.

While Sworn Virgin is dealing with some complex and current issues, the movie is rather slow and subdued. Rohrwacher plays Mark as so restrained that it’s difficult to get a more than a glimpse at what is going on inside his head. There is also not enough of a transformation to the make the performance particularly powerful. Clearly, Mark is not convincing anyone of his gender on the mountain that she is a man, since they all know of her past. But coming into the city, it’s still difficult to believe anyone would assume Marc was male.

The most intimate moments are found between Mark and Jonida, whose wariness of her new uncle slowly shifts into an agreeable understanding. As a teenager, Jonida is also transitioning in a way. There is also something fascinating in the choices made by Lila and Mark as to how they escape the restrictive gender roles placed on them as teens. Sworn Virgin has a story worth telling, but it could have been examined in a more engaging way.

Directed by Laura Bispuri
Written by Francesca Manieri and Bispuri, inspired by the novel Vergine Giurata by Elvira Dones
Released by Strand Releasing
Albanian and Italian with English subtitles
Italy/Switzerland/Germany/Albania in partnership with Kosovo. 90 min. Not rated
With Alba Rohrwacher, Flonja Kodheli, Lars Eidinger, Luan Jaha, and Emily Ferratello