The Forgiveness of Blood Review


With The Forgiveness of Blood, writer-director Joshua Marsten is two for two in depicting frightening and completely foreign cultures to willing American viewers. Maria Full of Grace (from way back in 2004) showed us the hardships of three Columbian drug mules on their way to America. His latest is a much more contained story about two warring families in the Albanian countryside, but it’s no less harrowing. It burns slowly, for sure, but its conclusion is incredibly gripping.

The Albania shown here is one where tradition and modernity butt heads as often and as violently as the two families at the heart of the movie. Teenage siblings Nik (Tristan Halilaj) and Rudina (Sindi Lacej) favor modernity, but after their old-fashioned father and uncle kill a man while defending the family’s honor, they become victims of a barbaric, centuries-old custom calling for spilt blood to rectify for their father’s sin. As a result, Nik is forbidden from leaving his family’s grounds, while Rudina—who, as a female, is immune—becomes the family’s sole bread winner while her father is in hiding.

The whole idea of these blood feuds sounds insane, but it’s all too real in parts of Albania. There, it’s known as the Kanun, and though Marsten’s story is fictional, it feels at times like a documentary. The conflict here goes back decades, as Nik and Rudina’s father prefers to cut through another man’s land while making his living selling bread via a horse and cart across the village. He claims the land belonged to his family long ago, and the new occupants have no right blocking the way, as we seem them doing in the film’s opening shot. After he confronts a member of the other family, insults fly. The killing smartly takes place off screen, so we can never say with any certainty whether Nik and Rudina’s father is guilty of cold-blooded murder or simply defending himself.

Regardless, it’s preposterous to put oneself in such a position over some name-calling, no matter how malicious it might be. Marsten, however, executes it believably, and the end result is a sentence of sorts for everyone involved. One family, of course, must mourn a lost loved one. Nik and Rudina’s father takes off to avoid jail or worse, and his wife and children are confined to lives they never intended for themselves.

Nik’s story is arguably the most compelling. Before the inciting incident, he’s seen wooing a girl his age. He plays soccer with his friends. He worries about his dress and how his hair looks. He’s a totally average high school boy, but he gets thrust into this situation that so plainly isn’t him. He doesn’t care about blood feuds or “honor”; He wants his life back and he isn’t afraid to defy his elders if it means helping bring this situation to an end. But for the bulk of the movie, we watch him slowly lose his mind inside the walls of his own home. He tries to entertain himself with video games and by building a gym on the roof of the house (which, through cinematographer Rob Hardy’s camera, looks a lot like a prison cell), but those are merely diversions. It’s while he’s knifing up his bedroom wall that we get a glimpse at what this situation has really done to him, and it’s quite sad.

Rudina, meanwhile, doesn’t descend into madness. On the contrary, she becomes a stronger, more responsible young woman. Much of that is out of necessity—she’s the only person in the family capable of working. But you see her venture out on her own, away from her father’s bread business and into the cigarette market, which helps bring in just a little more money.

Ultimately, the film is about the great distances that exist between generations—even consecutive ones. Nik and Rudina don’t get why their father has abandoned them, made them suffer so he could avoid a potential prison sentence. He doesn’t get why they’re so quick to sell him out and aren’t willing to suffer with him when he was only trying to defend them. For us as viewers, it’s a one-sided debate; No one will watch this film and really get where their father is coming from. He comes off more as a selfish ass than a loving father, but just because we can’t sympathize with him doesn’t mean the plight shown isn’t compelling.

Tragically, it seems The Forgiveness of Blood might actually be outdated in certain respects. In certain parts of Albania, women are no longer immune to murder under the Kanun. Marsten’s film isn’t likely to spur social change, but that’s quite obviously not its intent. He’s simply here to tell a story, and the subject matter just happens to be something that’s unfathomable and abhorrent. And it’s great storytelling. Though the film feels a lot longer than it is, its slow pace helps reinforce the harshness of these bystanders’ punishments. So while The Forgiveness of Blood isn’t necessarily a film you’ll want to revisit often, its themes and images are ones you’ll have a hard time shaking.

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