Seeing the mixture of the old and the new onscreen is a strange experience. In his new film The Forgiveness of Blood, director Joshua Marston reveals a contradictory Albania, one of lingering blood feuds and first-person shooter video games. Nothing sums up this movie more than the sight of a man checking his cellphone messages while he rides a horse and carriage delivering bread to homesteads. The characters and their gadgets are modern; the background and all its swirling violence are rooted in history. This is an old story in new clothing.
The man in the carriage is the father of Nik (Tristan Halilaj), a teenager with a crush on a straight-laced girl and a dream to start up a computer café. In the opening scenes, his story seems pretty relatable to a Western audience: rural boy wants to get girl and build a life for himself. But when his father flees town after killing another man over a complicated land dispute, Nik is suddenly shepherded by his extended family (clan might be the better word) to follow the ancient rituals of the Kanun, a set of traditional Albanian laws governing family disputes.
Halilaj deftly shows how wrenching it is for a young man to be torn out of his future and locked into an ongoing history of vengeance. It is also a marvel to watch his sister Rudina (Sindi Lacej), a straight-A student, leave school to take over her father’s bread-run. She becomes the family’s main provider, while Nik is confined to the house for an undefined mourning period, according to Kanun law.
The performances are interesting, and the plot feels eerily reminiscent of peasant struggles in Russian novels – but Marston’s pacing is off. He can milk tension in a few scenes, but mostly he relies on long silences, sparse dialogue, and the characters’ expressions to tell the story. The result is a slack thriller – if that makes sense – where you know bad things are going to happen on the horizon, but there’s a lot of meaningless waiting around before you get to that point. In a fit of boredom, Nik scratches patterns in his bedroom wall with a knife, a careless doodle that turns into frantic obsession.
Marston often casts non-actors in supporting roles, so it’s not surprising that the men of Nik’s family appear gritty and totally authentic. Feuds are still so common in Albania that professional mediators make a dubious living “settling” (or prolonging) conflict. Much of The Forgiveness of Blood comes across as a “movie of ideas”, not about specific characters, as if Marston wanted to highlight a specific problem in a certain medium. He did this in his last feature, Maria Full of Grace, but stronger characterization elevated that movie above your usual documentary-masquerading-as-fiction fare.
Unfortunately, the tension between Nik and his father is not engaging enough to excuse the slackness and lack of momentum in the plot, which fizzes out at the end without a bang. I understand this may well be Marston’s intent – there is no escape from the grip of history – but it tries an audience’s patience, especially after those long, indoor silences.
The Forgiveness Of Blood at IMDb
The Forgiveness Of Blood at Rotten Tomatoes
The Forgiveness Of Blood at Wikipedia
The Forgiveness Of Blood (awards won and nominated for) at IMDb
Kanun law at Wikipedia
The Haunting Persistence of Albanian Blood Feuds at TheWorld.org