Keen insights into an ancient society do not give this film the boost it needs to make an impact.
Emerging film director/writer Joshua Marston set the pole high for himself with his 2004 multi-award winner “Maria Full of Grace.” “The Forgiveness of Blood,” featuring unknown amateur actors, pulled the rabbit out of the hat when it took home the 2011 Berlin Silver Bear for Best Screenplay (nominated for the Golden Bear and others).
This film display terrific insight and accomplishes an unflinching discourse on ancient Albanian traditions few would even attempt to understand. Nor is there any particular reason they should try to understand. The people there feud. They get into generations long blood feuds where they not only have the self-granted right to kill members of an opposing family, they have the duty to do so.
The problem is, that happens in the USA, too, but we rarely make films about it. At least, not since the Godfather series.
“Forgiveness” is a composite of dozens of stories that Marston heard while he was canvassing the backcountry of Northern Albania with his co-writer, Albanian Andamion Murataj. This is Murataj’ debut screenwriting effort after a decade as cinematographer. The two have a chemistry working together; they are both young and full of the energy and willingness to experiment.
However, those chops are not yet all the way there. Although this film has glimpses of brilliance, it is painfully slow and, even worse, almost completely predictable. There is little or nothing that happens that the average viewer would not expect.
Having said that, the film is full of the purity and hard work of old school filmmaking. The three lead actors, Tristan Halilaj, Sindi Lacej and Ilire Vinca Celaj are teenage non-actors cast after extensive auditions and interviews at some fifty high schools across the land. Marston developed the characters of Nik and Rudina (the teenage brother and sister of the family under siege), and cast the actors to play the characters, at the same time.
During his research, Marston talked with professional blood feud mediators. These are members of families that have studied the ancient laws governing feuds (yes, there are feud laws) and know what to say and when to say it when the feud hits the fan. Although not completely literal, the rules of engagement are spelled out in considerable detail in the Kanun of Duke Leke Dukagjini, dating back to the fifteenth century.
Yes, in Albania the idea of killing a man’s or woman’s family members for his or her transgressions goes back six hundred years. One supposes arbitrary murder did not happen all that often in the past. In fact, it is a little hard to believe it happens in this film. In the screenplay, one man reportedly attacks two brothers with a knife and the two kill the man with his own knife, in self-defense.
As honest as that plot may be, if Marston’s next screenplay involves a knife killing, he should come up with something more original and interesting. In the murder business that story is not the kernel of a great film. In any event, when such a killing happens, the mediators are waiting in the wings, like trusted attorneys, with their hands outstretched.
They push the graphite rods into the lethal chain reaction of murderous revenge—good people to have around when one finds oneself and one’s family barricaded in the house like the Corleone gang and the rest of society chanting and pointing thumbs down. Of course, these mediators do not work for free, since, historically, the opportunity to mediate a real blood feud used to come along only once or twice in a lifetime.
In fact, when a family survives by baking bread as does Nik and his sister Rudina’s family, the mediator’s fee equals about forty thousand loaves. By the way, that is forty thousand loaves of good, fresh bread still warm from the oven. Those Albanians may not know how to play nice, but they do demand very good bread.
Sadly, since the fall of communism, lawlessness has caused blood feuds to reawaken with a vengeance. Reportedly, 9,500 males have been killed in blood feuds since 1992. Nik and Rudina’s nearly penniless family cannot pay enough for a mediator, so they must starve to death in their house. Their children cannot go to school and the father must go into hiding.
The girl Rudina has to take over her father’s bread delivery route and her brother Nik and her ten-year-old male cousin must cower in fear until her father joins her uncle in prison or until one of the males is killed in retribution. In the end, there are tough decisions to be made and Nik makes them.
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Directed by: Joshua Marston
Written by: Joshua Marston and Andamion Murataj
Starring: Tristan Halilaj, Sindi Lacej and Refet Abazi
Release Date: February 24, 2012
MPAA: Not Rated
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Country: USA / Albania / Denmark / Italy