Vergine gurata - Sworn VirginI know for bookworms like many of us, it seems almost sacrilege to say such a thing. But I find that sometimes it happens.

It happened earlier this week when I saw the excellent Italian film Vergine giurata (Sworn Virgin).

It’s based on a novel written in Italian by an Albanian author, Elvira Dones. I’ve traveled quite a bit in the Balkans, and read the works of the early twentieth century English traveler, Edith Durham, who wrote about her sojourns in Albania – and the tradition of sworn virgins.

In a patriarchal society like those of the mountain-dwellers of northern Albania, women had virtually no rights. In the absence of a male heir or with the death of a father or brother (quite common for a society prone to clan honor killings against rival clans), the only way they could inherit property or take charge of the households was by swearing an oath to become ‘sworn virgins’.

After this oath, the women who were now accepted as men would dress and act like men, and would be treated as such by all in the community. She could smoke, drink raki, and carry a rifle. She could never marry, bear children, break her vow of chastity, nor change her mind once she swore this oath.

In this film, this is the situation in which Hana, now known as Mark, finds herself. She lives alone in a home in the harsh but beautiful Accursed Mountains of Albania’s rugged northern region. Hana decides to leave her homeland to travel to Italy, where her cousin Lila lives. There, she is free to break her vow and return to being a woman. But after so many years, the return is neither quick nor easy.

I enjoyed the book, but didn’t love it. Some of the plot points that bothered me had been changed in the film version, and I think they improved the story.

In the book, Hana is attending college in Albania’s capital, Tirana, and calling herself a poet. It seemed a stretch she would return home and become a sworn virgin. The movie version made more sense to me. This Hana is someone who has never left the village and never plans to. She wants to make amends to an uncle who has become like a father to her, after Lila (his daughter and Hana’s cousin) spurns an arranged marriage to run off to Italy with her boyfriend.

I found it harder to understand the book version of Hana, whereas I felt quickly drawn into the movie’s version. I also felt the imagery of Albanian life and traditions was more powerful in the film than in the book. The flashbacks between Hana’s life in Italy and the years in Albania were good in the book, but even more powerful in the movie.

So while I liked the book, I felt the film was better.

Sometimes, it happens.

Even to bookworms.

What about you, readers? Any books that you feel were expressed better as films?

Happy reading (and viewing) to everyone.