Capturing the current mood of Albania, a country in transition but still clinging to ancient customs that paralyze the progress of its youth, The Forgiveness of Blood is the second full-length feature by Joshua Marston, who more than lives up to his auspicious debut, the acclaimed 2004 shocker Maria Full of Grace. He’s a rare combination of visionary, journalist, sociologist and historian, and he really knows how to tell a compelling story in vivid narrative terms that keep you locked to the screen, reluctant to look away for fear of distraction.
Just as Maria Full of Grace chronicled the downfall of a girl from Colombia whose desperation to survive a dead-end struggle with boredom led her into a lucrative job as a “mule” for a gang of drug smugglers, The Forgiveness of Blood transports us to another remote small town (this time in northern Albania) where normal teenagers are trapped between past and present. Nik Lindani (Tristan Halilaj) is a typical teenager, popular and passionate about contemporary pursuits—computers, cell phones, motorcycles, uploading photos on Facebook and sending text messages to his girlfriend. Nik has no interest in delivering bread. He dreams of opening his own Internet cafe. While he works out to turn his skinny bones into muscles to attract girls, his 15-year-old sister, Rudina (Sindi Lacej), accompanies their father in a primitive horse-drawn cart to deliver his daily bread to the café owners and grocers in the nearby village. Every day to make their job easier, they use a shortcut through land that was once owned by their family, who always shared the road with everyone. The new owners, a hostile band of unneighborly louts who inherited the land and resent the former owners, close down the road to prevent trespassing, blocking the delivery route. A nasty confrontation ensues, resulting in a fatal stabbing. Nik’s uncle is sent to prison, and his father goes into hiding, all because of the Kanun—a collection of laws, customs and rules passed down through word of mouth since the 15th century. Despite modern laws, satellite TV and a real police force, the old rituals still apply in Albania—especially in the case of blood feuds and disputes between neighbors. The history lessons we learn in this movie are carefully explained, coherently juxtaposed with the fabric of believable present-day life, and positively harrowing.
Until the blood feud ends and Nik’s father turns himself in, the harsh rule of the Kanun guarantees the victim’s family a promise, called a “besa,” that gives them the right to take a life for a life. The males are literally forced to live, sometimes for decades, under house arrest. His life totally upended, Nik is forced into isolation until a mediator can be found to resolve the feud. Since only the females are allowed to leave the house, he passes the time inside lifting weights with homemade barbells and watching television while Rudina takes over their father’s delivery route and increases her business acumen by selling American cigarettes. Rudina is the real tragedy. With the naive but characteristic selfishness of teenage self-preservation, Nik sees escape as his best salvation, forcing his younger sister, an A student with strong potential for college, to sacrifice her education and her youth to make a living for the family he abandons. But Nik has courage too, and how it all plays out is part of the film’s paralyzing impact.
Shot on location in Albania and featuring a winning cast of nonprofessionals who give solid, captivating performances, The Forgiveness of Blood combines the naturalism of hand-held camerawork with the formal wide-angle artistry of oil paintings. The austere but beautiful rural landscapes are the kind that always look peaceful and inviting—unless you live there. To authenticate the details, Mr. Marston hired Albanian writer Andamion Murataj to coauthor the rich and illuminating screenplay. The result is a film of great humanity that reveals Albania as a primitive region struggling to bridge the gap between medieval European customs and the tide of progress.
THE FORGIVENESS OF BLOOD
Running Time 109 minutes
Written by Joshua Marston and Andamion Murataj
Directed by Joshua Marston
Starring Tristan Halilaj, Sindi Lacej and Refet Abazi