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Albania has been without Communist rule for over 20 years now, meaning that an entire generation of children have no idea what it's like to live under a government that controls every aspect of their lives. They are accustomed to a more open society, where they can post images on Facebook, share video on their phones and spend free time playing video games. Their parents are dealing with the new world that their children are a part of, while still trying to hold on to traditional values. That sounds familiar, as it is a dichotomy that most cultures deal with today. Few of these cultures deal with blood feuds like in Albania, which impacts the divisions between generations like few other customs.
American director Joshua Marston picked this as the topic at the heart of his second feature, 2011's The Forgiveness of Blood, following 2004's Maria Full of Grace. While the feud in the film is important, the effect of it on the younger generation is Marston's focus.
After introducing us to the mountainous region in Northern Albania, Marston takes us inside Nik's family. His father Mark's life depends on his bread business and he must take a horse-drawn cart into town every day to deliver the bread. On the way, he uses a short cut that was on land his ancestors had owned for centuries. However, the government handed it over to his neighbors and they are not happy with Mark using the land. After first butting heads, the argument escalates and Mike and his brother murder a member of the neighbor's family.
Suddenly, a blood feud hangs over the family. Nik and his sister, Rudina, struggle to deal with the stranglehold it puts over the family.
Marston's film captures the unbearable weight put on the family through the eyes of Nik and Rudina. Despite the cast being filled largely with non-professionals, they come off as seasoned veterans. Tristan Halilaj plays Nik with uncompromising intensity, capturing the nuances of a teen hoping to take control of a hopeless situation. Rudina is played Sindi Laçej, who manages to actually be better at coming to grips with the situation, learning to take over the business. Laçej, Halilaj and the rest of the cast keep the film grounded in reality, giving the viewer an incredible sense that these people could exist simply because the situations do exist.
While the actors do pull off strong performances, the film's script, penned by Marston with Andamion Murataj, is its main weakness. I'm not sure how this script actually won an award at the 2011 Berlin Film Festival. At times, it seems to plod along, especially toward the end. Marston so effortlessly conveys the claustrophobia the family feels that by dragging out the fact that nothing happens over a period of time, it becomes just as overbearing to the audience. As we finally get to the point where Nik confronts his father – who has been allowed to visit – it comes as a breath of fresh air.
Marston may be trying to give the audience the same feeling of helplessness that Nik and his family feel, but at some point, it seems like trying to fill the 109-minute run time. I think there's a great 90-minute movie hidden here, but Marston gives us more scenes of Nik's restlessness than needed.
Marston's use of the camera also deserves some praise. The world of Nik and his family is not pretty. Marston and director of photography Rob Hardy shot the film more like a documentary, which fits the overall realism that Marston was looking for.
The Forgiveness of Blood is such a unique film because it does not focus on the violence of the situation (after all, the murder that sparks the plot isn't even shown on film), but as previously noted, it chooses to focus on the effect an archaic tradition has on the modern youth. It can get a little boring at times thanks to flawed pacing, but if you stick with it, Marston's film becomes an emotional, well-researched coming of age story like no other.
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