Joshua Marston: THE FORGIVENESS OF BLOOD (2012)


Culture trap

After the big critical and art house success of Joshua Marston's mostly Spanish-language 2004 debut feature Maria Full of Grace and the stardom of his Oscar-nominated protagonist Catalina Sandino Moreno, you might well expect a followup that was big budget and slick. Instead we get, in its stillness, quiet rage and authenticity, The Forgiveness of Blood -- a low-keyed, under-lit, documentary-style blood feud tale of a rural teenager, all in Albanian. On a more modest scale what Marston is doing is the same thing Angelina Jolie attempts in her Bosnian war romance saga, In the Land of Blood and Honey. Both made movies about deeply local problems in a language they didn't know, and carried it off.

What Marston is also doing is reaffirming his preoccupations and his integrity. Above all he shows an ongoing passion for penetrating other cultures and dissecting Third World problems. Here it's an archaic revenge code that nearly bankrupts an already impoverished family and could lead to the deaths of its two main male members. Maria was about the breathless, scary trips of drug mules. Forgiveness is about stagnation and confinement. Its central character spends most of the movie stuck inside a house, watching TV, trying to lift weights, and staring into space. If he goes out he might get killed, and his father is hiding somewhere.

It's hard to get your head around the 600-year-old "Kanun" or "law" of Albanian blood feud tht causes all this trouble. But is it so strange, or would we just like to think so? The same things govern First World schoolyard fist fights, the ripening resentments of international conflict, or deadly gang wars in the barrio. The Kanun is something to obey, not analyze. The same assumptions govern all testosterone-fueled blood-fests. The Kanun's newest victims are the Facebook, PlayStation generation who thread through this movie, still plugged in even in this poorest country in Europe.

Nik (Tristan Halilaj) is the main victim and the movie's protagonist. He's a dark, reedy, smooth-skinned 17-year-old whose main interests are motor scooters, cell phones, starting an Internet cafe, and his discreet courtship of a pretty classmate, Bardha (Zana Hasaj). Nik contrasts with Mark (Refet Abazi), his ruddy, heavy-set father. Nik is brave but he doesn't want to be. There's a lightness about him. He's a kid, after all.

The original bone of contention is passage over a piece of land. The mean, provocative Sokol (Veton Osmani) has inherited a property that was in Mark's and Nik's family for generations and then arbitrarily chooses to forbid Mark to pass over it in their horse cart on his way to sell bread. Mark and his brother Zef (Luan Jaha) have a fight with Sokol in which Zef kills Sokol and he goes to jail for it. But the Kanun decrees that that isn't enough. A male of the killer's family must die. Not wanting that to happen, Mark hides and makes Nik stop going to school and stay indoors with his younger brother Dren (Elsajed Talalli) and his teenage sister Rudina (Sindi Lacej). Dren should be able to go to school but he isn't. So should Rudina, but the men decide she must take over Mark's meager bread business and become, well, the bread winner. She meets all kinds of obstacles, and partly the story is about her. She copes very well, eventually selling the horse and diversifying the business.

There's not much detail otherwise about the characters, but thanks to the neorealist style and local non-pros, and Marston's Albanian collaborator, filmmaker Andamion Murataj, who acted as interpreter, script writer, and casting agent, there doesn't have to be, because the sheer presence of the cast members is so authentic and because the established situation is so palpable.

My chief memories apart from the various shouting matches and gatherings of menfolk and a professional blood feud mediator, Mr. Skendaj (Xhevdet Shim), who alone wears a hat indoors, are of the skinny Nik casting cement blobs at the end of a pole to left weights, the video his school friends make for him and his awkward video of reply -- and his bold confrontation with the enemy family toward the end. Most of the time Nik is just a normal, selfish teenage boy, unable to be responsible and grown up. But the situation pushes him to an act of great courage the enemy family acknowledges.

These scenes show why non-actors can work so well in a film: their ineloquence speaks volumes no fancy dialogue can convey. DP Rob Hardy could have used a bit more illumination in some scenes, but his use of natural light is often beautiful, and understatedly naturalistic, like everything else. The British Hardy previously shot Andrew Garfield springboard Boy A and the even darker Red Riding. Marston's former composers Leonardo Heiblum and Jacobo Lieberman again do music that's unobtrusive and helpful and is augmented atmospherically by Albanian songs.

The Forgiveness of Blood premiered at the Berlinale and was shown at other 2011 international festivals including Moscow, Telluride, Toronto, Chicago, and London. In Berlin it won the best screenplay award and was nominated for the top prize, the Golden Bear. Limited US release begins February 24, 2012.