In Laura Bispuri’s Sworn Virgin, abrupt music cues are an imperative formal component. Nando Di Cosimo’s elegiac, strings-heavy score crops up at unexpected points throughout and often disappears as quickly as it’s arrived, with Bispuri confining the music (the same piece is repeatedly used) to single settings. The technique is nearly identical to the way Jean-Luc Godard features Michel Legrand’s music in Vivre Sa Vie, almost as a motif rather than a score. Godard uses music to fragment his film’s opening series of shots, which displays Anna Karina’s face from a variety of angles. Bispuri, likewise, utilizes music not as a means of mournful immersion, but as a distancing tactic that splinters access to character interiority.
It’s an especially daring choice for Sworn Virgin, a film that could easily insist on accessing the psychology of Hana (Alba Rohrwacher), an Italian woman who’s been living in Albania for the past 14 years under the name Mark, as part of the region’s burrnesha practice, where women may forgo their gender identity as female by taking a vow of chastity and living in the Albanian mountains as male. Following a credits sequence, Mark boards a boat headed for Italy, where he hopes to return and, possibly, reclaim an identity as Hana.
Bispuri sprinkles details of Mark’s past throughout the narrative without reducing his current dilemma to a binarism of either-or transgender confusion. In fact, past and present are meshed into an assemblage of vacillations across time, rather then between times. Even on a structural level, the film is less oriented around quantifiable transitions than pieces of greater significance that seldom configure neatly into a gradually emerging puzzle.
When Mark returns to the apartment of Lila (Flonja Kodheli), it’s not immediately clear what relationship the two had. At first, it seems they may have been lovers, given Lila’s conflicted emotions of both relief and weariness at seeing Mark’s face. When it’s later revealed that Lila is Mark’s estranged sister, it’s nearly an arbitrary recognition, a formality in the film’s sense that absolute identity or, better yet, individuality grasped solely through an identity marker, produces only hollow procedures for cultural comprehension.
Upon Mark’s return to Italy, Bispuri establishes a series of trials and prejudices tied directly to Italian culture that Mark must navigate in order to assimilate. Jonida (Emily Ferratello), Lila’s teenage daughter, offers insensitive, quizzical remarks, such as “Are you a fag?” and “You’re a cross-dressing lesbian,” to which Mark responds with only a wounded glance, as if any kind of rebuttal through words would be insufficient and, even, validating of hateful rhetoric. Bispuri binds such pain within these moments and the majority of it, especially by way of resolution or disarmament, is left unresolved.
Given its nearly episodic structure, formal choices, and similar thematic inquiries, Sworn Virgin suggests an unofficial remake of Vivre Sa Vie. A sequence where Hana has all of her hair lopped off makes explicit reference to The Passion of Joan of Arc, which figures into Godard’s film, and Hana’s name rhymes with that of Karina’s character from Vivre Sa Vie: Nana. These overlaps aren’t simply a display of Bispuri’s art-cinema credentials, but a hard-won transplant of cinematic ethos that’s been successfully reconstituted within an extraordinarily, culturally specific Albanian practice that dates back for centuries. Instead of finding the narrative’s topicality, Bispuri reroutes those implicit threads through a transnational cinematic lineage that questions the particulars of not only gender, but also European identity.