Moving Drama ‘Sworn Virgin’ Wipes Away Binaries of Gender


In this hushed, prickling drama, Laura Bispuri creates and erases binaries with every swivel of the camera, drawing out whole stories from soft glances, silences, shadows, and the loom of the northern Albanian mountains, the hard faces of men.

Mark (Alba Rohrwacher) barely speaks until he is out of Albania, across the Italian border, in the home of his old friend Lila (Flonja Kodheli), who isn’t quite happy to see him; he disrupted her life once and might do it again. Mark’s disruption is a quiet but profound one, the simple fact of his being: He is a sworn virgin, or burnesha — that is, he was born a woman and took an oath under traditional Albanian law to live as a man, with a man’s rights and honor, but without any sexual contact, ever.

Sworn Virgin is the story of Mark trying to live in the world, so often out of place. In Albania, as a girl called Hana, Mark demanded to run, to shoot, to drink. His best childhood friend, Lila, was pushed aside because her dad mentored Mark and pushed her toward a rigid and traditional womanhood. Unlike Mark, who had found meaning and power in staying, Lila left for Italy, where she has a husband and a daughter.

That daughter, a teenage synchronized swimmer, distrusts Mark at first, but they become close as they realize that the pool is a place where they both feel free. Cutting between present, childhood, and recent past, Bispuri constructs a subtle, richly emotional collage. The most compelling moments observe the tension and care between Lila and Mark/Hana, who becomes less interested in remaining a man the longer he stays in Italy.

Of course Albania is still in his memories, as is the case with Lila, who didn’t shed home by leaving. Of course every binary the film sets up is troubled, undone. Of course the coasts of Albania and Italy touch the same water, the same sea.

Sworn Virgin
Directed by Laura Bispuri
Distributed by Strand Releasing
Opens April 22, Village East Cinema