Often, the line between a foreign film and a film simply produced or set in a foreign nation is not that hard to discern. Hollywood has an uncomfortable history of needing to make all kinds of narative and logical leaps in order to crowbar an American protagonist into any story taking place outside of our borders. Not only that, but the manner in which the foreign culture and society is viewed, the gaze applied to those subjects, is obviously that of an outsider.
Director, James Marston, seems to understand the source of this discord, and was able to cut it off at the root to create a film so seeded and steeped in feel of a foreign culture that he basically disappears within it. In doing so, he makes one of the most immersive and authentic feeling films regarding a foreign culture that I have seen in a long while.
The story he tells is intriguing in its alien nature, yet contains universally human themes. Nik (Tristan Halilaj) is a teenage boy living a slowly modernizing life in northern Albania. He plays soccer, flirts with a classmate, uses Facebook, and dreams of opening an internet cafe. His sister Rudina (Sindi Lecaj) is an excellent student with a powerful curiosity. His father drives a horse-drawn carriage delivering bread, and is locked in a rivalry with the family who has been given his ancestral land in the wake of the fall of communism. That family has begun to block a road historically used by the whole town, and when a seemingly common moment of conflict results in the murder of the new landowner, Nik’s father goes into hiding and his uncle is arrested.
Unfortunately for Nik, this means that the ire of the slighted family has nowhere to land but upon him and his younger brother Dren. You see, in Albania there is a centuries-old law, the Kanun, which states that a man from one family can be killed as retribution for the murder of a member of another family. Nik is safe in his house, however, and so he and his younger brother must remain sequestered while his family works towards receiving a Besa, a sort of rite of forgiveness or deference, from the wronged family which will eventually lead to a full pardon.
Meanwhile, his sister must take over the father’s bread cart, leaving school in the process. Thus the feud serves a duel purpose of both forcing a family to live in fear, as well as choking them economically.
From here Marston could have moved in any of a number of predictable directions, but instead he creates a narrative of simple, realistic simplicity and novelty. Nik takes to his isolation reluctantly, playing video games and generally lazing around the house. He creates a set of weights so he can keep in shape. Now and then his friends come over, but in general he is alone with his thoughts, which soon turn to the utter preposterousness of his position. If his father would just turn himself in, he reasons, he could be fine. It is his father’s freedom that is most impugning the honor of the slighted family, and were he to be imprisoned they would have no need to seek blood. The archaic law is destroy the modern life he has created, and the conflict is more than he is willing to bear.
Rudina, in taking up her father’s business, slowly begins to build upon it. To her, the opportunity afforded to her by the loss of every male in her family is one that she would have never had before. It’s an odd way to look at the situation, and the similarity to the way American women were empowered during World War II is not hard to see.
Marston tells this story with insightfulness and intellect. He spent a long time learning about this society and speaking with people involved in blood feuds, and his knowledge comes through in his utter comfort with the characters and the story. There is no sense of exterior curiosity or alienation to his storytelling. This ease and comfort aids in the creation of the narrative, told from the point of view of people who live this life, who are at ease within it. It also, oddly enough, makes it easier for an outsider to look in and understand what it going on, purely because there is no confusion or complexity to the manner in which things are presented.
Unfortunately, this unique story and its innately comprehensive delivery are hampered somewhat by the simple realities of the story. Much of this tale deals with Nik’s isolation and the maner in which the mundanity and powerlessness work upon him and alter his life. This means that the audience is in the uncomfortable position of having to live this isolation with him, which is unfortunately about as entertaining as it sounds.
There is something to say for not populating a narrative with fabricated drama or set pieces, and Marston and cowriter Andamion Murataj should be commended for that. But the truth is that a movie still needs to entertain to engage, and after a while the act of living someone else’s isolation turns from interesting and insightful to draggy and dull. It picks up again, of course, but for those ten or fifteen minutes the point has been made and simply becomes belabored.
Despite this, I still can’t help but think about this film, even a few days after seeing you. The concept of this institution, and the way in which it affects a generation seemingly so modern and removed from the world of this law, is an interesting one to investigate. The native, nonprofessional actors give it their all and really do create empathetic and meaningful characters. There is much to love in The Forgiveness of Blood, and much to be learned from it, as well. It’s a rare film that can be interesting and informative and enlightening all at once, but this one manages to pull off that trick in spades.