Title: The Forgiveness of Blood
Director: Joshua Marston
Starring: Tristan Halilaj, Sindi Lacej, Refet Abazi, Zana Hasaj, Veton Osmani, Ilire Vinca Celaj, Cun Lajci
Winner of the Silver Bear Award for Best Screenplay at last year’s Berlin Film Festival, “The Forgiveness of Blood,” from writer-director Joshua Marston (“Maria Full of Grace”), details a simmering contempt between two present day Albanian clans — think the Montagues and Capulets, minus any love story — that boils over into a blood feud that slowly rips a family apart when a land dispute leaves one man dead. Like 2009’s “The Stoning of Soraya M” and “Ajami,” as well as a small handful of other foreign films, Marston’s movie shines a light on religiously imputed dictums of punishment that may seem harsh (not to mention downright strange) to Western audiences, but does so in a way that never betrays the inclusiveness of its thematic inquiry.
A carefree teenager with dreams bigger than his small rural town, Nik (Tristan Halilaj) nurses a somewhat requited crush on young Bardha (Zana Hasaj), and helps his father Mark (Refet Abazi) with horse-drawn deliveries and other work. Nik’s world is turned upside down, however, after his father’s heated dispute with Sokol (Veton Osmani), the patriarch of the family whose land Mark’s road cuts through, leaves him dead. According to a centuries-old code, this entitles the dead man’s family to take the life of a male from Nik’s family as retribution.
With his uncle in jail for complicity in the incident and his father on the run, Nik is confined to his house — shut off from Bardha and all of his other friends. As he grows increasingly isolated and desperate, Nik pleads for an outside mediator to try to resolve the conflict between the two families, but his elders reject this idea. Meanwhile, Nik’s 15-year-old sister Rudina (Sindi Lacej) takes up their father’s old bread delivery route and tries to help eke out a living for the family, also peddling cartons of cigarettes.
Continuing a research tradition and mode of expression forged on his much lauded debut film, Marston again turns a paradigmatic story on its head by focusing on characters that exist around the fringes of society. Working with local co-screenwriter Andamion Murataj and a cast of mostly non-professional actors, the filmmaker taps into the tension and bewildering chasm between 21st century life and this antiquated 15th century legal code (in one touching scene, Nik stares plaintively at a cell phone video of Bardha that a friend smuggles to him), rooted in a text called the Kanun but largely an oral tradition.
To that end, “The Forgiveness of Blood” is a quietly affecting movie. If it lacks much drama in the conventional sense — once Nik and his family settle into their situation, frustration and coping by degrees are the movie’s chief flavors — its backdrop and each of its parts exude such a well observed, relaxed authenticity that the film lingers considerably, and provokes a real sympathy with Nik’s plight. The performances here — especially of Halilaj and Lacej, as the brother and sister most perilously caught between these two worlds — are engaging and naturalistic, and Marston smartly doesn’t try to foist a lot of stylized work or manufactured emoting upon the story.
Movies like this and Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-nominated “A Separation” — one of the best films of 2011, regardless of nationality — possess a special level of import and consequence beyond their simple narrative bonafides, because they underscore the universality of their conflicts and the fact that, governmental saber-rattling notwithstanding, young people of every ethnicity have an innate desire to quell the conflicts and divergences that so roil their parents.
Written by: Brent Simon