Monday, April 18, 2016

Feminism and transgender, Albanian style, in Laura Bispuri's quiet marvel, SWORN VIRGIN

That great film actress Alba Rohrwacher, whom TrustMovies has long referred to as Italy's answer to Meryl Streep, gives yet another of her versatile, bone-deep performances in the new Italian/Albanian movie SWORN VIRGIN. Adapted (from the novel by Elvira Dones) and directed by Laura Bispuri, whose first full-length film this is, the movie gives Ms Rohrwacher a particularly unusual role, that of Mark, aka Hana, a very masculine-looking young woman (or is this a very feminine-looking young man?) -- whom we first meet as s/he is being taught to herd goats atop a somewhat wild mountain range in Albania.

From the very next scene of the film, however, it is clear that something is quite wrong here. Our hero/heroine is unhappy, confused, and soon s/he is leaving this place, below, only to end up in a surprise visit to what would seem to be the home of a relative in Italy. Ms Bispuri, shown at left, alternates between scenes that take place in the present and past, so that slowly we come to understand what has happened to this young woman. This has to do with a particularly Albanian tradition of how to handle women who want the kind of freedom automatically handed to their male counterparts.

We've recently seen a fine French film -- Oscar nominee, Mustang -- that showed us something on this order involving Turkey and its fundamentalist ideas regarding women. And if you've seen certain films that take place in Albania and deal with subjects such as the Albanian idea of revenge --say, The Forgiveness of Blood -- you will quickly understand how, uh... backward these ideas can seem.

To go into much detail here would spoil the growing surprise, as well as the understanding we slowly come to experience of what is going on here -- not to mention ruining some of the fine work by Bispuri and Rohrwacher that helps us come to terms with it all. I don't think I've ever seen Ms Rohrwacher give such a self-effacing performance as here.

Mark/Hana is a character who is not allowed to see or be him/herself. So little wonder s/he cannot let any another person see inside, either. There are times that the actress is so quiet and "enclosed" that you'll want to crane your neck around the screen to try to get closer to her face in order to know her emotions and thoughts a little better.

So real and so committed to that reality is the actress that she holds us at every step along this strange journey. This involves her "sister," played beautifully by Flonja Kodheli; her helpful brother-in-law (Luan Jaha, above, left); and her niece (a lovely performance from newcomer Emily Ferratello, shown at right, three photos below).

We also meet a lifeguard (Lars Eidinger, above and below) at the pool in which Mark's niece practices her synchronized swimming -- which leads to one of the most interesting hand-jobs you're likely to have witnessed. Likewise our hero/heroine's first penetration scene: so fraught and unusual yet strangely liberating as any the movies have given us.

By the end of Sworn Virgin, most of our questions will have been answered, at least enough to understand who Mark/Hana really is and what s/he might hope to get from this strange and possibly welcoming new world that may now be called home.

The finale is as quiet, rich and full of wonder as all else in this fine first film. We're certain to hear from Ms Bispuri again soon, and of course we'll be getting lots more from Ms Rohrwacher -- who, in just 12 years has already accumulated some 52 acting credits. Few actresses work as often, as well, or as deeply as this one.

From Strand Releasing and running just 90 minutes, Sworn Virgin opens in New York City at the Village East Cinema this Friday, April 22. The following Friday, April 29, it will play Los Angeles at the new Laemmle Ahrya Fine Arts.

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