BERLIN (Reuters) - In the Mountains of the Damned along the Kosovan/Albanian border, women seeking to escape the stifling roles tradition holds for them must either flee or swear an oath of eternal virginity, granting them the right to live as a man.
Young Italian director Laura Bispuri's first feature film, "Sworn Virgin" depicts this through the choices of two women raised as sisters in a village in these remote peaks, and exposes a little-known phenomenon of rural Albanian culture.
The film is based on the novel of the same name by Albanian writer Elvira Dones. But it is rooted in reality -- "sworn virgins" have been around for some 200 years and around 100 still live in the border mountains today.
This is a world where women will die by 60, brides are taken to their husbands so heavily veiled they can never find their way back home, and fathers' provide a bullet with their daughters' dowries, should they not meet their husbands' expectations.
The film, among 19 vying for the Berlin Film Festival's top Golden Bear honour, focuses on the life of Hana -- a strong-willed girl who wants to bear a rifle, fell trees and run free -- played by Italian actress Alba Rohrwacher.
Her sister Lila flees a looming arranged marriage for Italy, but Hana increasingly emulates the behaviour of the village men and is shown an older "sworn virgin" who now lives as a man, but is forbidden any sexual relations. A teenage Hana takes the oath and becomes "Mark".
She bandages her breasts and lives as a rifle-bearing, heavy drinking and smoking man, but the crushing loneliness she suffers after the deaths of the couple who raised her, lead her to leave for Italy to find Lila, where in tiny steps she gradually rediscovers her femininity.
"This is a film where the physical is of the essence. It is a narrative of a frozen body which slowly thaws out," Bispuri told reporters. Hana's reawakening is shown through tiny, moving gestures -- in how she touches her hair, stares at her reflection in a window, or slowly peels the name tag from her uniform.
Rohrwacher, who won a best actress award at last year's Venice film festival for her role in "Hungry Hearts", brings a powerful screen presence to the role of Hana and Mark, as well as great sensitivity.
"I thought playing Mark would be an impossible task but actually it went smoothly, once I was confronted with it," she said. She learned Albanian for the role and wore the clothes of Mark off set.
"I didn't want Albania to be portrayed simply negatively or Italy positively in this film... Lila and Hana sing of their love for their homeland at the end of the film," said Bispuri, "I fell in love with this country."
(Editing by Andrew Heavens)