"Sworn Virgin," Laura Bispuri's subdued and intimate debut feature, follows a young woman who has availed herself of a centuries-old Balkan tradition to live as a man. You could say the movie arrives at a fortuitous moment, given that transgender stories and experiences have never been more culturally front and center. But Bispuri, an Italian director adapting a novel by the Albanian writer Elvira Dones, wisely sidesteps any facile parallels in her examination of a fading and fascinatingly specific subculture.
She also avoids falling into the traps and clichés often associated with this kind of material, in part because for a lengthy stretch the nature of the character's transition remains a matter of some mystery. Suffice to say that no scalpels are wielded, and mercifully no award nominations are solicited on behalf of a tortured display of gender-bending histrionics. ("The Albanian Boy" this isn't.)
Skipping deftly between time frames while keeping her camera close to her protagonist — played with tremulous understatement by the remarkable actress Alba Rohrwacher — Bispuri traces a journey of delicate interior shifts and reversals. In the process, she plays meaningfully with the idea that identity is as much a social and psychological construct as it is a physical reality.
The story begins in a cold, remote stretch of northern Albania that has long been governed by a strict set of codes known as the Kanun. Under these laws, a woman may choose to cast off the social constraints of her sex and enjoy the pleasures and privileges of manhood (drinking raki, operating a firearm) with one crucial exception: The transformation calls for a vow of lifelong chastity.
None of this is immediately clear when we first meet Mark (Rohrwacher), roughhousing with other men and a particularly energetic goat in the mountains (stunningly shot by cinematographer Vladan Radovic). But it's clear enough that Mark's shortish hair, denim jacket and quiet, hardy demeanor are concealing a more complicated story, which Bispuri (who wrote the script with Francesca Manieri) unravels with a restraint that manages to seem tactful rather than coy.
Before long Mark heads to Italy and has an initially strained but ultimately warm reunion with his sister, Lila (Flonja Kodheli). The last time they saw each other was 14 years earlier, when Mark was not Mark but a young girl named Hana. The silence that hangs between them now is interrupted by a stream of impudent questions from Lila's teenage daughter, Jonida (Emily Ferratello), reacting with both distrust and curiosity to the arrival of an uncle she never knew.
Flashbacks can become a facile narrative crutch when used excessively, and there are moments when "Sworn Virgin," cutting between past and present with switchblade efficiency, falls into an overly mechanical, explanatory rhythm. But ultimately, the bifurcation of the narrative makes a deeper sort of sense. We catch glimpses of Lila and Hana's unhappy childhood in an insular village, where their options as young women are depressingly limited. And we see how carefree their present-day existence seems by comparison, in a modern city where dreams, aspirations and sexual urges are allowed to find their proper expression.
A more conventional film might have taken a violent turn at the point when Mark begins to recede and Hana drifts to the fore. But here and elsewhere, "Sworn Virgin" defies expectations. The gradual reawakening of Hana's long-dormant desires — and, no less important, the growing sense of feminine kinship she feels with Lila and Jonida — is all the more affecting for being left largely unspoken. And Bispuri, perhaps aware that she might be venturing into politically incorrect territory (accusations of transphobia would be dispiriting but not surprising), is shrewd enough to score some of her most eloquent points in purely visual terms. She gives viewers the space to contemplate the many varieties of longing — for home, for family, for sex, for love — that Hana is experiencing.
At a certain point, Hana begins accompanying her niece to a local swimming pool, where two sequences in particular linger poignantly in the memory. In one, Jonida takes part in a synchronized swimming routine with her teammates, their bodies following a precise choreography from which the slightest deviation would be unthinkable. In the other, men and women of every conceivable body type splash about with joyous abandon, luxuriating in a freedom whose absence they will never know.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Running time: 90 minutes
Now playing: In limited release