Morose Code

02.24.12

Joshua Marston, The Forgiveness of Blood, 2010, color film in HD, 109 minutes.


DIRECTOR JOSHUA MARSTON is nothing if not bold. Resistant to the usual foray into the provincial corners of Americana typical of so many independent filmmakers, he prefers grappling with foreign cultures. Though one might question the wisdom of this preference, Marston (who lived abroad and was a correspondent for ABC during the first Gulf War) has fared well, garnering critical acclaim and awards for his first feature, Maria Full of Grace (2004), about Colombian drug mules, and Best Screenplay—cowritten with Andamion Murataj—at the Berlin Film Festival for his new film. Set in Albania, The Forgiveness of Blood (2010) examines the paradox of a culture that bears the signs of encroaching capitalism while adhering to outdated methods of social interaction. Young people play video games and use cell phones, shadowed by archaic codes of conduct that endanger their very lives.

The story focuses on the effects of one such code on the children of a typical family of a small village. The patriarch, refused passageway on a road by a neighboring farmer, returns with his brother to murder the farmer. (The war between the Hatfields and the McCoys of a bygone era of American history comes to mind.) While the brother goes to jail for having done the actual killing, the father, alleging innocence, goes into hiding, making clandestine visits to his family. According to the Kanun, the Albanian code dating back to the fifteenth century that rules such conflicts, the injured family assumes the right to take revenge by killing a male member of the perpetrator’s family. In this case, the oldest son, Nik (Tristan Halilaj), as the likely target, must live under “voluntary” house arrest—at the expense of his education, his social life, and his newfound love interest—until such time as the feud is resolved by mediation or otherwise. The former proves difficult when a potential mediator asks for more money than the family can afford. It doesn’t help that Nik’s sister Rudina’s (Sindi Lacej) efforts to peddle her bread are thwarted and she is forced to sell the family horse for much less than it is worth.

Bored and disgusted with the absurdity of the system and his father’s complicit acceptance of it, Nik wonders whether the man should serve jail time rather than put his family through such an ordeal. But when his father is arrested and then released, the danger only increases. Desperate, Nik confronts the rival family, seeking peace, but is willing to die rather than live under these conditions. Impressed by his courage, the grandfather of that family tells him he must leave the village to avoid being killed. Against his mother’s wishes, but with his father’s blessing, he does just that. Rather than imply this is the best solution, however, Marston’s final shot is not of Nik walking off to a better life, but of Rudina, no less a victim of the backward culture, doomed to confront a dismal future.

Although Albanian films have dealt with blood feuds, their accent, according to Marston, is on the killings and the action around them. Marston is less interested in the inherent melodrama of the subject and the violence associated with it than with the young people whose lives are effectively ruined. In fact, the entire phenomenon would appear to be even more outlandish for recent generations since, according to press notes, “only one such blood feud was recorded during the forty-year reign of the communist regime,” while in the vacuum created by the collapse of communism, the Kanun code reemerged as an unsanctioned alternative to a convoluted legal system. Thus, for young people, the reappearance of such a code might well lack the enduring glue of an unchallenged tradition. Then there is the Kanun itself, which, unlike the Ten Commandments, for example, is hardly a text memorized and cited by everyone, but largely an oral tradition, subject to arbitrary interpretation and random misuse.

Compatible with the accent Marston has chosen, his film has a leisurely, almost uneventful pace—not unlike that of Maria Full of Grace—seemingly at odds with the tension and action-oriented potential of the material. This subdued dramatizing imposes an unsettling ordinariness on a horrific state of affairs, which nicely mirrors the unquestioning manner in which the elders accept the code. In general, it is easy to underestimate what Marston does: His actors are affecting and credible without being showy, and his camerawork is direct without being intrusive. That this restrained visual and narrative style works is a sure sign of a confidence that has served him well and should continue to do so.

Tony Pipolo

The Forgiveness of Blood opens in New York at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and in Los Angeles at Landmark Sunshine Cinema on Friday, February 24.