Many Western countries take pride in tolerating homosexuality and sexual diversity. Sadly, transphobia is still rife in most of these places. On the other hand, socially conservative societies such as Iran and Albania are very willing to embrace their transsexual and transgender citizens. The government of Iran even pays for sex reassignment surgery, while some rural peoples of Albania fully accept transgender men, as long as they remain celibate (they are called “sworn virgins”).
Hana (Alba Rohrwacher) lives with her sister Lila (Flonja Kodheli) and their parents in the remote mountains of Albania. Lila then escapes to the West in the hope of a better life, leaving Hana to care for her parents. Hana then decides to become Mark so that she can perform the family duties that only a man is allowed to carry out (such as handling a shotgun and hunting), according to strict social rules. She undergoes a conversion ritual, cuts her hair and begins to wear male clothes, all with the full consent and support of her parents as well as the rest of the community.
Sworn Virgin tells two stories in parallel: of Hana becoming Mark in rural Albania, and of Mark becoming Hana once again in Italy. After the death of his parents, Mark moves to Italy in order to live with his sister Lila, now married and with a child. He slowly settles in the new environment, and begins to shed the male clothes and identity, which has carried for so long.
Mark never underwent hormone treatment and sex reassignment surgery, which were never an option in the impoverished mountains of Albania. He hides his breasts with bandages instead. His face and his body are not feminine, and he is not butch either. At times he looks androgynous, but never like a man. In rural Albania dress codes are very binary, and so it was very easy for Mark to identify as a man simply by wearing the right clothes. In Italy, women often wear male attire, and so Mark’s identity is often thrown into question.
Hana’s female-to-male transitioning was never a sexual choice. She neither had a female lover nor seemed attracted to women. As a result, Mark seems like a woman trapped in a man’s clothing and identity. And it is now time for him to reassess whether he should keep his promise and remain a virgin male for the rest of his life, or whether he shun the old tradition and go back to living as Hana.
This films raises many complex questions about sexuality. Firstly, is it possible to be transsexual/transgender without sex? Secondly, are the so-called liberal world truly that liberal with regards to transgender and transsexual practices? Finally, what is it that makes a man and a woman (as in gender, not biological sex). Even Judith Butler (who wrote the influential book ‘Gender Trouble’ in 1990) might be baffled at Hana/Mark.
Italian director Laura Bispuri and editors Carlotta Cristiani and Jacopo Quadri (click here for his dirty profile) crafted a convincing tale that is both visually attractive and emotionally gripping. The snowy mountains of rural Albania are contrasted with the multi-coloured and fast-paced urban life in Italy. Rohrmacher’s performance as both Mark and Hana is superb, and she quietly yet effectively convey a vast array of complex feelings.
Sworn Virgin is being presented as part of the 30th BFI Flare London LGBT Film Festival, and it premiered last year in the official competition of the Berlin Film Festival. DMovies is following the event live right now. Click here for more information, or watch the film trailer below.