Reviewer: Philip Tatler IV
Ratings (out of five): ** 1/2
Soon after eschewing socialism in the early ‘90s, Albania was one of the first countries to re-form a representative government. However, many Albanians returned to an older form of self-governance: the Kanun.
A set of moral laws dating back at least to the fifteenth century, the Kanun is essentially a ratification of common courtesies and basic principles, transcending political or religious affiliation. One of its more aberrant tenets is the Gjakmarrja, or blood feud. The Gjakmarrja takes “an eye for an eye” in a uniquely disturbing direction. Basically, if someone kills someone else, the murderer – or any male member of the murderer’s family – must give their life as penance. At some point in his travels, American director Joshua Marston came upon the concept of the Gjakmarrja and decided to construct a film around Albanian blood feuds (just as he had applied his interest in Mexican drug mules to his debut feature, Maria Full of Grace). While his attraction to the material is understandable, the film – The Forgiveness of Blood – drains nearly every bit of dramatic potential from the subject matter. It’s an unfortunate example of director-as-tourist..
The film is primarily the story of teenage Nik (Tristan Halilaj), a typical young man with aspirations to escape – or at least improve upon – his life in rural Albania. His friends are heading to college soon and he’d love to join them or perhaps stick around and open up his own internet café. His sister Bardha (Zana Hasja) is an ace student with similar hopes. All their dreams are put on hold, however, when their father, Mark (Refet Abazi), murders a neighbor in what may or may not be self-defense. The Gjakmarrja is invoked and the family – especially Nik – become potential victims of retribution.
Marston does a great job setting up an atmosphere of dualities and nascency. Nik is nearly a man living in a society that’s nearly modern. Motorcycles and horse-drawn carts rumble side-by-side down ancient roads. Indeed, the Balkan setting is almost geographically brackish – here West becomes East, Europe morphs into Asia. Negotiations and compromise are at the core of the drama between the warring families and several attempts are made at bridging the chasm between the tenets of the ancient Kanun and the more civilized strictures of the civic law.
The trouble is, this rich material isn’t exactly mined for all it’s worth. Once the blood feud is declared, Nik and his family are sequestered in their own home. To step outside is to risk catching a stray bullet. To Marston’s credit, this home-bound claustrophobia is initially thick with tension. But about halfway through, the tension builds to anticlimax and there’s still an hour to go. The film becomes an internal one. To their credit, Halilaj and Hasja bring youthful anxiety and trepidation to Nik and Bardha. But the script – by Marston and Andamion Murataj – gives them nowhere to go. The Forgiveness of Blood ultimately becomes a somewhat ordinary coming-of-age story, despite the trappings of high drama.
According to the supplements on Criterion’s edition of the film, Marston spent exhaustive weeks interviewing Albanians who had been in – or mediated – blood feuds. Marston made a point to cast locals – some non-actors – in his Dardenne-ian quest for authenticity. He did his homework. But there’s something missing from Marston’s read of Albanian culture. Even from the first frame – a gorgeous lockdown shot of a rustic farm in the shadow of the Balkans – this feels like an armchair attempt at apprehending a very complicated, culture-specific, story.
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