The 39th Portland International Film Festival is undergoing Balkanization. No, it’s not breaking up “into small, often hostile units” (thanks, Merriam-Webster!), despite the behavior of some of the wearier festival-goers. But our recommendations for today’s viewing hearken from Albania and Turkey, so it seemed appropriate to trot out the term. One is about a boy and his dog. The other is about a woman living as a man who decides to live as a woman again. Details below.
“Sworn Virgin”: Slight and fine-boned, with dark cropped hair, Mark (Alba Rohrwacher) grew up in the Albanian countryside. When he arrives at his sister’s doorstep in Italy, his stroppy teenage niece asks him, “Are you a fag? Or a cross-dressing lesbian?” The answer is more complicated.
Laura Bispuri’s quiet but absorbing feature examines the fascinating Balkan custom of the sworn virgin. In exchange for a pledge of lifelong virginity, women are permitted to assume the name, dress and lifestyle of a man. For Mark, this voluntary social queerness has more to do with escape and less to do with following an inner longing; drinking whiskey and carrying a rifle sounded more appealing than being married off as chattel (who can blame him?). Scenes of Mark’s brutal upbringing in the frostbitten village are interspersed with his new, more spacious life in Italy, where his defenses begin to thaw and the burdens of an ill-fitting gender identity finally become too much to bear.
What does Mark really want? To wear a lacy black bra instead of a binder? To have sex with a man? “Sworn Virgin” declines to pass judgment on the political implications of Mark/Hana’s transition-in-reverse. Instead, it’s a sensitive exploration of the bodies we live in and the connection they have to our souls. [Lily Hudson]
(Albania, 90 min., in Albanian and Italian with English subtitles) Wed. Feb. 24, 6:15 p.m., Regal Fox Tower; also Fri., Feb. 26, 8:30 p.m., Whitsell Auditorium.
“Sivas”: Call me corny, call me old-fashioned, but there’s something primally satisfying about a boy-and-his dog tale. That’s exactly what this Turkish drama is, but it’s a well-executed, sensitively acted, example of one.
The movie tells you right off the bat that no animals were harmed in its making, which both puts you at ease and warns you that some fake, but realistic-looking, animal violence is in the offing.
The setting is the windswept Anatolian steppes, where we met the adolescent Aslan. (His name means “lion” in Turkish, so when a relative refers to him as such, it’s not necessarily a Narnia reference.) The title critter is a burly sheepdog who loses a dogfight and is left for dead afterwards. The barbaric practice is presented by first-time director Kaan Mujdeci without any explicit moralizing, but Aslan’s rescue of the dog and ensuing friendship serve as an implicit but thorough critique of it.
Aslan tries to use his barely domesticated pet to impress a female classmate who’s playing the princess in an upcoming school play–he also tries to finagle the role of the prince for himself–and these efforts culminate in another dogfight, one that, despite the opening notice, may be tough for animal lovers to watch.
Simply but strikingly photographed and evocative of its place and culture, “Sivas” could have mustered more narrative satisfaction, but the charms of Aslan and his canine companion are enough to make it worthwhile. [Marc Mohan]
(Turkey, 98 min., Turkish with English subtitles) Wed., Feb. 24, 6:30 p.m., Empirical Theater at OMSI; also Fri., Feb. 26, 6 p.m., Regal Fox Tower