The Forgiveness of Blood
by Warren Curry
Joshua Marston, incredibly, has only made two feature films. I’m astounded because he writes and directs with such a sure touch that you’d think he’d have closer to a dozen features under his belt. “The Forgiveness of Blood” is a worthy successor to 2004’s “Maria Full of Grace,” easily one of the best debut films of the past decade. It’s a shame this gifted filmmaker doesn’t work more often.
Among many other things, both of Marston’s features are coming-of-age tales focusing on protagonists who make enormous sacrifices ostensibly for the good of their families. Set in Albania, “The Forgiveness of Blood” largely takes place in the aftermath of a murder that sparks a “blood feud” between two families. In this case violence doesn’t necessarily beget more violence, but the consequences are certainly dire.
The life of seemingly ordinary teenager Nik (Tristan Halilaj) is turned upside down when his father, Mark (Refet Abazi), and uncle murder a man over a land dispute that was threatening the well being of Mark’s business. Mark sells bread to local families and merchants using a horse and buggy, but the now deceased man, Sokol, was trying to prevent Mark from crossing his land, thereby denying him access to his customers.
Mark claims the killing was done in self-defense, but skeptical of the local justice system — largely because one of Sokol’s family members works on the police force — the man goes into hiding. Nik’s uncle has been arrested, but this doesn’t stop a centuries’ old law, Kanun, from being enacted, which stipulates that a victimized family can retaliate if one of its members has been murdered via the killing of a male member of the perpetrator’s family. Amnesty only exists in the form of house arrest.
Nik must bear the brunt of his father’s act, dropping out of school and giving up most of his ties to the outside world. His sister, Rudina (Sindi Lacej), also endures a major life change when, for economic reasons, she is forced to leave school and take over her father’s bread delivery business. As he grows more isolated from his surroundings, the toll on Nik becomes severe.
Marston excels, like few other directors I’m aware of, at creating palpable tension without employing much action. Aside from a somewhat perilous car ride and an act of arson, the danger is more implicit than explicit. Marston knows where to place the camera and how to move it to thrust the viewer into each moment. The narrative doesn’t quite have the searing intensity of the director’s previous film, but each scene is still capable of standing on its own as something vital.
The environment he captures is also of great intrigue. The old and new clash when you see cell phones mix with antiquated modes of transportation like the horse and buggy. Similarly, Nik questions why he must suffer for his father’s actions based on a law made hundreds of years earlier. Watching a film about an Albanian family feud may sound inaccessible, but that presumption is far from the truth.
Marston, an American, penned the script with Albanian writer Andamion Murataj, and the cast is comprised largely of non-professionals. This tactic, of course, makes careful casting essential, and the two young actors, Tristan Halilaj and Sindi Lacej, do a commendable job shouldering a considerable amount of the film’s weight. Lacej’s Rudina is more than just a supporting figure, and because she has the ability to move about freely (unlike her brother), it’s this character that leads us to places and people of interest, such as the ones she buy cartons of cigarettes from in order to turn around and sell them at a profit.
Opting not to embellish his film with much in the way of score or artificial “production value,” Marston has once again made a powerful fiction film that feels entirely real. Let’s hope not to have to endure a seven-year wait for the filmmaker’s next effort.
The Forgiveness of Blood (USA, Albania, Denmark, Italy/2010)
Director: Joshua Marston
Cast: Tristan Halilaj, Sindi Lacej, Refet Abazi, Ilire Vinca Celaj, Cun Lajci
Rated NR, 109 minutes
(Sundance Selects. Opens in New York City and Los Angeles February 24, 2012.)