LITTLE ROCK A homicide is the precipitating event in Joshua Marston’s somber yet compelling The Forgiveness of Blood, but we never see the killer’s slicked knife. Instead, the movie is all about the fallout, the reverberations of an act that occurs off screen, beyond the apprehension of audience or characters.
It’s like the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman tragedy transposed to rural Albania, where modernity scrapes up against ancient codes and tribal affiliations trump government authority. The facts of the core confrontation are nearly unknowable, and beside the point to those all too ready to choose sides. What’s important is that a debt has been incurred, and that someone must pay.
Using a cast of mostly nonactors - some of whom are more effective than others - Marston (Maria, Full of Grace) and his Albanian born co-writer Andamion Murataj have constructed a simmering thriller with the verisimilitude of an anthropological documentary that can also be read as a subtle parable about the agonizing process of bringing progress to one of the most benighted and impoverished places on earth.
One day Mark (Refet Abazi) is driving his horse-drawn cart along his bread delivery route when he finds the shortcut he normally uses blocked by the neighbor (Vetan Osmani) who owns the land. Mark moves the stones and uses the road anyway, which leads to harsh words and muttered threats in the village pub. The next time he tries to use the road, more than words are exchanged, and Mark and his brother (Luan Jaha) go on the lam accused of murder.
This has immediate and dire effects on Mark’s family, particularly his oldest son Nik (Tristan Halilaj), who under the Kanun - Albanian tribal law - is sentenced to a kind of house arrest until his father’s debt is paid. The idea seems to be to pay respect to the dead and the bereaved, who respect the home as a sanctuary but who would kill Nik were they to meet him in the streets.
And so it’s left to Nik’s younger sister Rudina (Sindi Lacej - a strong performer) to step into the role of family breadwinner, dropping out of school to drive the family cart. She’s immediately tested by an opportunistic competitor with a technological advantage (a working car), but she adapts quickly, diversifying her product line and negotiating shrewdly with adults who are willing to press their advantage on her.
While she’s unhappy about missing school, she’s far better off than Nik and his younger brother, who realize that their imprisonment may last years, and might end only with their deaths.
It may be helpful for American audiences to understand that the Kanun was suppressed by the Communists and only began to re-emerge in the mountainous areas of Albania in the 1990s, in part because of a power vacuum occasioned by a weak (and presumably corrupt) government. While Nik resents the archaic code that keeps him home bound, he doesn’t really challenge it - and eventually his anger turns from the elders who enforce the customs to his own furtive father, who keeps sneaking home for visits.
Without resorting to didactic exposition, Marston manages to teach us a great deal about Albanian law and custom, and to make this utterly foreign culture explicable to popcorn-munching American moviegoers. While at times he stabs us in the eye with visual metaphors - as when that pathetic wagon meets a pimped-out truck on a narrow road with neither driver willing to give way - he generally maintains a sense of plausible horror, which lends The Forgiveness of Blood an uncommon power.
The Forgiveness of Blood 90
Tristan Halilaj, Sindi Lacej, Refet Abazi, Luan Jaha, Vetan Osmani, Zana Hasaj
109 minutes In Albanian with English subtitles
MovieStyle, Pages 36 on 04/13/2012
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