‘The Forgiveness of Blood’: The hunger of vengeance

February 21, 2012


Films remind us of how far we’ve come as a society – as well as the opposite.

We are, after all, in the 21st century, a time of virtually instant communication and any manner of futuristic devices that differentiate us from, say, our ancestors in the Middle Ages, or even the caveman era.

And yet, as Joshua Marston shows in his new film, “The Forgiveness of Blood,” there are parts of the world – and not just the Third World – where questions of honor are inextricably linked to questions of revenge. This is eye-for-an-eye, Biblical stuff, showing that, as a species, we haven’t evolved that far after all.

Marston, whose previous film was “Maria Full of Grace,” shot his film in Albania, with a cast of mostly non-actors speaking Albanian. His story is unique to the area: a story of a blood feud that disrupts one family’s life.

More to the point, the story is told from the viewpoint of two teenagers in the family – blameless in the feud itself but pulled into it nonetheless by bonds of blood.

Nik (Tristan Halilaj) and Rudina (Sindi Lacej) are the children of Mark (Refet Abazi), who has a beef with his neighbor, Sokol (Veton Osmani). Mark supports his family with a bread delivery business he operates out of a horse-drawn cart (though the story is set in the present, with everyone connected by cell phones). But the road from Mark’s land to the main road crosses Sokol’s land – and Sokol has, apparently spitefully, decided to no longer grant Mark access, though the land belonged to Mark’s family for generations.

So he blocks the road with large rocks, which Mark and his brother Zef have to stop and move each day. This leads to arguments in the local bar with Sokol and his family – and, eventually, to a confrontation between Mark, Zef and Sokol (not seen in the film) that leaves Sokol stabbed to death.

Nik, however, knows only this: He’s hanging out with his friends, when suddenly men approach him, hustle him into the back seat of a car, telling him to stay down as they drive him home. The police have arrested Zef for stabbing Sokol; Mark is on the run. And Nik and his young brother must stay in the house.

Why? Because Sokol’s family has declared a blood feud – which won’t be satisfied until they’ve killed Mark or a male member of his family. So, for the moment, Nik and his younger brother are under a kind of house arrest, until such time as the feud is lifted or settled.

Marston’s challenge is to keep the viewer interested in the rest of the story, which amounts to a teen-ager waiting impatiently for his life to resume. But he wisely chooses to split his focus, focusing on Nik’s younger sister, Rudina, who now has the opportunity to earn a spot in the family hierarchy. While she resents being pulled out of school, she’s not truly unhappy at being tapped to take over the family bread business. She not only deals with the bread deliveries – she becomes competitive at it. She even expands into bootlegging cigarettes, turning into a young entrepreneur.

Mostly, however, Marston’s film is about Nik, who’s burgeoning social life essentially is slam shut. He can’t communicate with his friends, can’t woo the girl he’s sweet on – and he’s deemed too young to be part of the negotiations to bring the feud to a conclusion.

Marston creates that tension in a film that is not about action but about the way the lack of action reveals character. His cast captures that blend of boiling unhappiness, fear and innocence that alternates in this situation: the momentary promise of a change, the falling back to fortified positions when nothing changes after all.

Halilaj, who bears a resemblance to Andrew Garfield, has an expressiveness that’s less about acting than behaving. Similarly, Lacej, as Rudina, brings that blend of petulance and pride that the character requires.

“The Forgiveness of Blood” is quietly compelling, a film about the traditions of the past hamstringing the present. It’s a look at a clash of cultures that brings medieval thinking into the modern-day.

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