Like you, I wouldn’t have thought Albanian blood feuds were an export commodity, but twice in the past weeks they’ve appeared on our big screens – first in Jennifer Baichwal’s Payback, as documentary evidence of an especially suffocating form of human debt, and now in this nuanced dramatic feature.
In telling the story of one such feud, The Forgiveness of Blood wisely narrows the perspective in order to broaden its scope.
No, we don’t see any blood, or much forgiveness either, but we do witness something far more resonant – a young generation caught between the rock of tradition and the hard place of modernity.
For these adolescents, though, the metaphor is painfully real: They are quite literally trapped.
The director is Joshua Marston, a talented American with a unique penchant for making films in foreign lands in foreign languages, trekking to Colombia for the exemplary Maria Full of Grace, and here to the rural backwater of northern Albania. His opening sequence of parallel shots neatly establishes the social contrast: a silent tableau of weathered men in a horse-drawn cart bumping across a stony field; then a noisy crop of teenagers wielding their cellphones in a bustling schoolyard. The rock, the hard place.
17-year old Nik (Tristan Halilaj) stands among the teens, as does his 15-year old sister Rudina (Sindi Lacej). Both are smart, with concrete aspirations – he to start up an internet cafe, she to attend university.
But already those parallel shots threaten to intersect. At a local cafe, their father and uncle are bantering with a neighbouring clan over a road right-of-way. Like the bad fellas in Goodfellas, their tone is jocular yet edged with a palpable menace.
The subsequent stabbing, and death, occurs off camera. The uncle is arrested, but the father goes into hiding and the Kanun – an ancient legal code – goes into effect. Viewed through the eyes of the teenage siblings, the rest of the picture traces the law’s unrelenting fallout.
Immediately, the male members of the family are “targeted,” obliging Nik and his much younger brother to stay strictly within the confines of their home. There, they are relatively (if not absolutely) safe, since their house imprisonment is deemed an ongoing mark of respect until the feud is mediated.
How ongoing? No one seems to know. The code is malleable; these things can drag on for years. Ironically, in a patriarchal culture, the dispute liberates the women to assume greater authority. The mother toils in a factory, while Rudina takes over the horse-drawn cart, delivering bread to the townsfolk. Turns out she has a good head for business. The daughter flourishes, even as the son, cut off from his girlfriend and his education and his ambitions, gets stir-crazy.
Marston often uses a fixed camera to emphasize Nik’s static predicament, a strategy that proves a little too effective when, around the half-way mark, the plot stalls and we begin to feel as entombed as the characters.
Still, even then, there’s much to observe – for example, the thoroughly credible performances of the cast, most of them non-professionals; or the sociological detail that peeks out from the margins of the frames. There’s talk of cousins who have immigrated to London to slave away on construction crews; and there’s the “professional mediator” who, gussied up in jacket and tie, arrives to offer his services for a fat fee that promises to grow fatter as the feud drags out. Shady lawyers, it seems, are a universal breed.
The climax finds Nik striding into the mid-day sun to meet his fate. Yet don’t expect any High Noon melodrama. Instead, the film adroitly side-steps the particular for the general. The kid’s sad plight may be specific to Albania, but, to small or large degrees, his double-bind is felt by every teenager everywhere – how to embrace the future without banishing the past.
The Forgiveness of Blood
- Directed by Joshua Marston
- Written by Joshua Marston and Andamion Murataj
- Starring Tristan Halilaj and Sindi Lacej
- Classification: PG
- 3 stars