Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon May 04, 2015 8:49 pm 
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Seeking to undo a tradition-honored gender switch

With well-known Italian actress Alba Rohrwacher (who recently starred in her sister's prize-winning The Wonders/Le meraviglie) as its protagonist, Laura Bispuri's austere film tells a reverse transgender tale. Rohrwacher is Hana/Mark, a woman from a subset of Albnian society where female-to-male transitions are a long cultural tradition. But having lived as Mark for 14 years, she chooses the tricky path of reentering her biological gender role and living as a woman again. This is an original angle on a trendy theme, but "austere" is even putting it somewhat mildly to describe the very restrained manner in which the theme unfolds. Variety's Guy Lodge reasonably sees an audience-stimulating potential for debate in Virgin's retro angle on its trendy theme, but even he grants "a few storytelling lulls": the film could have used more emotional openness, a bit of humor, a bit of danger, and a lot more momentum.

What it has is a technical polish, especially in the visuals that provide a splendid contrast between the striking blue mountain expanses of Albania and the warmer clutter of the city of Milan. Mark/Hana's voyage between these contrasting environments provides a strong objective correlative for her personal transformation.

A well-known part of the code of "Kanun" of Hana/Mark's remote mountain society permits women to chose to live as men if, in a solemn ceremony held before the men of the village, they swear to live a life of celibacy. This is called burrnesha (sworn virgin), which means taking a vow of lifelong chastity. But Bispuri's tight-lipped film leaves us to piece this together gradually, withholding an explicit explanation till halfway through. We are also left to pick up that this custom is a way out of the culture's ingrained sexism, which imposes a particularly servile role on women. Living a a man, a woman who embraces burrnesha exchanges the restriction of servility for the restriction of a life of strict chastity.

Renouncing sex can be a heavy price to pay for a few extra personal freedoms, and what happens is that Mark, ex-Hana, living these years in the Albanian region known by the evocative title of the Mountains of the Damned, has grown tired of a life where her chief indulgences consist only of the right to drink raki and the right to fire a rifle. Remembering her estranged sister Lila (Flonja Kodheli), who ran off on her own to Milan long ago to be married, Mark-Hana leaves home for the first time and travels to Italy, surprising Lila with a completely unannounced and initially not particularly welcome visit.

This un-fun event is enlivened in an essential way by an ongoing series of flashbacks to the two sisters' earlier lives back home in the mountains. Actually it turns out Hana (played as a teenager by Drenica Selimaj) is not Lila's blood relation but a lost girl who got adopted into a family without boys, only a daughter, Lila (as a girl, Dajana Selimaj). In between the many flashbacks, Lila's teenage Italian daughter, Jonida (Emily Ferratello), provides a kind of reality-check or doubtful audience POV with the question: "Are you a fag or a cross-dressing lesbian?"

Then, still alternating with the flashbacks, Mark begins the transition back to Hana, involving scenes at a swimming pool where Jonida is in a synchronized swimming team (suggesting Céline Sciamma's Water Lilies?); an apartment of her own provided by Lila's husband (Luan Jaha); and a dead-end job as night manager of a parking garage.

As Hana/Mark, Alba Rohrwacher, resembling a less stylish Tilda Swinton, isn't ever fully male or fully female, seeming awkward in either role, her mannish jeans outfit and short haircut hardly making her begin to pass as a guy, her switch back to feminism not really soft or natural. And this vague unisex neutrality is apparently the point. But while thought-provoking, Virgin is a story that fails to engage emotionally, just as Rohrwacher fails to convince as either male or female. This lack of conviction may be partly explained because this is a story about a woman who took on living as a man not out of emotional need but to escape repressive customs for women -- something her sister Lila did simply by fleeing to a marriage in Milan. But more traditional storytelling would involve some rough scrapes for somebody whose sex-change is so unconvincing.

Sworn Virgin may be a bit too subtle and understated for its own good (perhaps needing the balls Mark/Hana lacks), but is still an elegant and distinctive feature debut for Bispuri, who adapted the novel by Elivira Dones with co-writer Francesca Manieri.

Alba has also starred or costarred in The Man Who Will come/L'uomo che verrà and I Am Love/Io sone l'amore (both from 2009), and 2010's The Solitude of Prime Numbers/La solitudine dei numeri primi, and has a number of upcoming films. Androgyny is all the rage.

Sworn Virgin/Vergine giurata, 84 mins.,in Albanian and Italian, debuted in competition at the Berlinale 12 Feb. 2015. Other fests include Hong Kong, Tribeca, and Buenos Aires. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, where it showed 5 May 2015. At the SFIFF it won the Golden Garte New Directors Prize for best first feature.

US theatrical release comes: NYC 22 Apr.2016 Village East Cinema; LA 29 Apr.2016 Laemmle Ahrya Fine Arts.

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