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Tribeca Review: Virgin Mountain and Sworn Virgin

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Tribeca Review: <em>Virgin Mountain</em> and <em>Sworn Virgin</em>

The latest film from Icelandic director Dagur Kári concerns an obese, socially awkward man who’s still a virgin at age 43, and who finds himself falling for a woman he meets at a line-dancing class. Though Virgin Mountain is the English title, its Icelandic title, Fusí, seems more fitting. Instead of being a broad yuks-with-heart sex romp in the manner of Judd Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Kári’s film is more a character study of Fusí (Gunnar Jónsson), a particular specimen of arrested development who still lives with his mother; obsesses, among other things, on a giant scale model of the World War II Battle of El Alamein; and works the same dead-end airport job, often enduring the humiliating taunts of his co-workers in the process.

Kári mines this familiar material for a certain level of empathy instead of the expected easy humorous condescension: As grotesque as some of Fusí’s habits may be, Kári subtly suggests the sheltered upbringing that led him to this point and the resultant fear of change that keeps him in this stagnant state. But Kári’s sober approach isn’t quite enough to escape the feeling that we’ve trod down this well-worn path before: the male fantasy of the schlub who gets the hot girl. Even its one potentially refreshing twist—Fusí’s love interest, Sjöfn (Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir), turns out to be a depressive with a flaky, self-destructive streak—is molded to serve its ultimately conventional vision: Sjöfn is, in the end, so sketchily characterized that she ends up being little more than a pawn for Fusí’s heroic self-improvement, which Kári tries to pass off as a man-child’s coming of age. Been there, done that, can already imagine the Hollywood version. Is Kevin James available?

Italian filmmaker Laura Bispuri’s debut feature, Sworn Virgin, offers a much more fascinatingly complex and eye-opening experience. The virgin here is named Mark, but Mark was, in fact, born a woman, formerly named Hana, who’s taken an oath, as dictated by the Albanian set of laws known as the Kanun, to practice complete abstinence in exchange for being allowed to partake in certain male-only activities. Bispuri’s film, however, finds Mark (played by Italian actress Alba Rohrwacher) at a gender-identity crossroads: curious about the sexual pleasures he has long denied himself in the name of keeping up the traditions of his home country, and just generally desiring to reclaim at least some of his former femininity. To that end, he descends from his mountain village, unannounced, to live with his stepsister, Lila (Flonja Kodheli), along with her husband and daughter in Milan, hoping for a fresh start.

Bispuri approaches this particular character as a mystery of sorts. She initially presents Mark to us in his current sexual/existential quandary, then gradually reveals, through occasional flashbacks intercut with present-day scenes, how her frustrations at the limitations of being a woman in Albanian society eventually led her, with the encouragement of her understanding stepfather, to decide to pledge this lifelong virginity. But Sworn Virgin isn’t just about this one character’s continuing search for his gender identity, but also more generally about people trying to think and act outside societal boxes. Lila herself fled the clutches of Albanian societal customs, running away from the specter of an arranged marriage in order to find love on her own. In that regard, Hana, who at first holds a gun to Lila when she threatens to escape, is initially the more conservative of the two; only until she finds her current lifestyle as Mark too constricting does she finally envision a life that isn’t dictated by strict male/female either/or gender norms.

It’s that kind of empathetic attention to emotional complexity that makes Sworn Virgin more than a heavy-handed issue-of-the-week topical polemic. Mark’s desire to at least partly return to her former identity as Hana isn’t treated as a regression, but as the natural dilemma of a thinking and feeling human being open to unfamiliar experiences, regardless of societal dictates. Bispuri’s intelligence is perhaps most strikingly evident in the film’s ending. Instead of explicitly showing us a full transformation, she leaves us on a more ambiguous yet ultimately more heartrending note of personal reconnection, of an individual finally on the path toward reconciling her various conflicting human impulses.

The Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 15—26.

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