A feud feels like the real McCoy
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Mar. 9, 2012
Journalist-turned-filmmaker Joshua Marston is part storyteller and part anthropologist, turning his camera - twice now, with great success - on real, if little known, social problems.
In the penetrating 2004 drama "Maria Full of Grace," Marston followed a pregnant Colombian teenager who becomes a drug mule (a performance that earned actress Catalina Sandino Moreno an Oscar nomination). Marston's second feature, "The Forgiveness of Blood," is just as intense and harrowing a ride.
It's a thriller that feels like a documentary.
Set in Albania and using a cast of mostly nonactors, "The Forgiveness of Blood" centers on the Kanun, a centuries-old Albanian code of law still in use today. When a simmering land dispute between two families boils over in an act of violence, the Kanun - which governs how such a crime must be atoned for, possibly including retaliatory bloodshed - comes into play.
As he did with "Maria," Marston (who co-wrote the script with Albanian-born filmmaker Andamion Murataj) doesn't spin his story in the abstract. Rather, he tells it through the eyes of a teenage boy, Nik (Tristan Halilaj), whose father and uncle (Refet Abazi and Luan Jaha) have been accused of stabbing a neighbor (Vetan Osmani).
As his family's eldest son, Nik becomes a target of retribution by the victim's relatives, especially when Nik's father goes on the lam, leaving his debt of honor unpaid. Until that debt is paid - through blood or otherwise - Nik is sentenced to a kind of house arrest, unable to set foot outside lest he be killed for seeming to show disrespect to the dead. It's all in accordance with the Kanun, yet it's hard to take for a restless, hormonal adolescent, even one used to staying in touch with his friends through texting and social media.
"The Forgiveness of Blood" is a tale of tribalism, set in a Facebook world.
Halilaj gives an achingly poignant performance as a modern kid caught in the middle of a primitive feud. Nik's relationships with those closest to him - his father, his girlfriend (Zana Hasaj) - are tested by societal pressures that might look strange to Westerners.
Nik's sense of himself is put to the test. The enforcers of the Kanun may be a bunch of angry, out-of-touch village elders, in Nik's eyes, but young men can quickly turn into bitter old ones. Nik feels the pull of the Kanun - and its ancient blood lust - almost as strongly as he is repelled by it.
Paradoxically, "Forgiveness" manages to be both highly personal and universal. It's Nik's story, to be sure, along with Albania's, but it's also a larger look at any culture - including our own - in which perceived acts of disrespect are met with brutality. Without being heavy-handed, Marston draws parallels between Albania and the turf wars of urban gangs.
Despite being an American, the director's immersive take on Albania never feels like that of an outsider looking in. That's probably partly a testament to his background as a journalist. But that's also because his subject matter - the treacherousness of wounded pride - isn't so foreign after all.
Contains brief crude language. In Albanian with subtitles.