Tradition and modernity clash in Joshua Marston’s latest film. The director of Maria Full of Grace, makes his return to feature length films with The Forgiveness of Blood, an understated yet powerful film set in present day Albania.
The film portrays a traditional Albanian family. The oldest son, Nik, goes to school, and dreams of one day opening an Internet café in the village. Sadly, Nik’s dreams are smashed in one fell swoop when a dispute over land use sees Nik’s father and uncle charged with murder. His father is forced into hiding, and Nik and his younger siblings are kept within the house for fear of an ancient blood law that demands one of them give their life in return.
The film is slow, with very little action, but overall, it is well paced. There were moments where I was a little confused as to what was going on. I was able to get the gist of things surrounding the blood feud, but there is little explanation given. The term ‘besa’ is thrown around quite often which I was able to infer the meaning of, and later looked up (it roughly means “word of honor” and is the root of what it means to be Albanian). The traditions and cultures revolving around ‘besa’ are the key points of conflict in this film.
Working within this framework, the contrast between modernity and tradition in this film is striking. During the opening sections of the film, we see Albania as a country beginning to emerge into the digital era. While Nik’s town only seems to have one computer, many people have cell phones, and there is great excitement at the high school when someone gets a phone capable of recording video. Yet, we see that Nik’s father must still run his bread delivery business using a cart and horse, and many roads are not paved. When the blood feud begins, its juxtaposition to Nik’s way of life is quite shocking. This film presents the call for blood in a very casual matter. Although the idea of enacting a blood law in current times may seem insane to a Western audience, the characters in the film accept it, and often talk of people in similar situations.
The performances in this film all feel very natural and real to life. Tristan Halilaj portrays Nik as someone who understands his county’s traditions, but is a little unwilling to accept their outcome. He is young and has ambitions, and to have his life taken or his freedoms cut off because of the actions of a family member is hard for him to take in. He is frustrated, and as the film goes on, his actions become increasingly erratic and desperate. As the suspense grows, we wait for Nik’s inevitable breaking point with baited breath.
The film also provided an interesting contrast in the roles between Nik and his sister Rudina. All the children have been pulled out of school, but Rudina is chosen to go out and run her father’s bread route in order to bring in some money. Although it is unclear how long Rudina will be kept from school, or if her position as breadwinner will be permanent, it is interesting to see how she takes advantage of the opportunity presented to her. When she returns to the bread route after her father’s absence, it becomes clear that someone has moved into their route and started poaching customers. Rudina decides to make up the money by selling cigarettes. As a young woman, she has a lot to contend with in Albanian society, yet, Rudina is ambitious, negotiates well and doesn’t take no for an answer, even when dealing with older men who appear to want to brush her off.
Rather than focusing on any possible melodramatic elements, Marston hones in instead on the grim acceptance of ones cultural traditions, and the frustration this can cause younger generations. The end product is a moving drama with key contradictions that create a natural tension that grows and carries on strong straight into the climax.