Guest Post: Another Rave Review for The Forgiveness of Blood

This weekend, I took my family to see The Forgiveness of Blood. I can't stop praising this movie enough (and I'm still annoyed that it didn't get submitted for consideration for a Best Foreign Picture Academy Award nomination). If you had the chance to read my review or see my interview with director Joshua Marston, you know how much I loved it. I'm not the only one. It's earned a lot of positive reviews from critics everywhere. Here's yet another by Uk Lushi whose insightful analysis points out some of the film's many positive elements.

The Unforgettable Forgiveness of Blood


Joshua Marston’s The Forgiveness of Blood is a multilayered cinematic drama of a family enmeshed in a blood feud. It is the story of a family of six living in a poor rural town in northern Albania. Life is not easy, but the family seems to endure and be happy in their own way like most families. Nik (Tristan Halilaj), the oldest son, is a teenager on the edge of adulthood interested in motorcycles and a beautiful classmate Bardha (Zana Hasaj). Rudina (Sindi Laçej) is Nik’s younger sister and an excellent high-school student with big dreams. Their world is turned upside down when their father Mark (Refet Abazi) and uncle Zef (Luan Jaha) murder their impetuous neighbor Sokol (Veton Osmani). The State has awarded Sokol and his family a parcel of land that had belonged to Nik’s and Rudina’s family for generations and Sokol refuses to let them use the short-cut road through the land. The killing takes place off screen; but conflict is foretold in an extraordinarily well-written scene in the village’s watering hole where members of Nik’s and Rudina’s father’s and Sokol’s clans exchange sarcastic and acerbic words.

 The police arrest Zef, but Mark escapes into hiding. The law of the mountains or the Kanun requires blood revenge. According to this ancient Albanian set of customary laws all male members of the household of the perpetrator(s) may become a target. Nik and his younger brother must never leave the house, or if they're spotted outside they will be killed to avenge Sokol's death. Although the women in the house are not at risk of the vengeance, the toll of suffering is harsher on them. Rudina and her mother (Ilire Vinca-Çelaj) must take over the household management and enable the survival of the family. The hardest task falls upon the young and fragile shoulders of Rudina, who is forced to quit school and keep the bread delivery business of her father going.

It is exactly at this stage of the plot framework that Mr. Marston shines as a movie-maker, because he doesn't let the movie get entangled in the legal clash between the ancient customs and modern laws, but zooms into the psychological and moral aspects of the main characters. The setting of the drama becomes the unfinished house of Nik's and Rudina's family. The natural plot continues to develop, albeit at a much slower pace. The viewers get the chance to focus on the attitude, emotions and behavior of the protagonists. The main theme indeed remains the blood feud; however, subthemes emerge: a rebellious son-father relationship between Nik and Mark, who intermittently and secretly visits his wife and children; and a cultural struggle between archaic beliefs and traditions Mark and his father (Çun Lajçi) express and try to defend, on one side, and contemporary views of Nik and Rudina, on the other.

In the middle stage of the plot Nik is confined within the walls of the house. He sneaks out twice to go and see his love interest Bardha, exchanges a cell phone video with her and makes an effort to exercise in an improvised gym he builds on the second floor of the house, but he's doomed to be isolated. The movie at this segment is saved by the character of Rudina and the brilliant performance of the actress who plays her– Sindi Laçej, who takes her horse-drawn carriage and goes out into the real world to keep the family above water. Throughout this part of the film Mr. Marston masterfully captures the majestic beauty of the Albanian Alps and the astonishing greenery of northern Albania.

The tension between the teenagers and their parents begins to heighten as Nik and Rudina attempt to convince their father to surrender to the police or find a resolution of the feud through mediation. The old and new worldviews of living are at one another's throats. But the father doesn’t back down. Practically in a state of house arrest, Nik starts to go crazy; someone (most likely from Sokol's clan) burns down the stable and carriage and Rudina is forced to sell the horse. The scene where she– still a kid, although matured before her time– haggles with the horse buyer is definitely one of the most accomplished scenes of the movie and very reminiscent of the episode in True Grit by the Coen Brothers when Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfield) goes to Colonel Stonehill’s (Dakim Matthews) stock barn and with tough bargaining sells the horses at a profit.

The slow and undeclared war between the children and their father must come to an end. The director Marston does not employ a deus ex machina solution. The heroes are not saved by an external powerful party such as police or the State. On the contrary, Nik decides to go to the house of the victim’s clan and let them decide about his life or death. Without any doubt a dangerous and brave act. But the patriarch of Sokol’s clan shows both wisdom and humanity and let’s Nik go, under the condition he leaves the town for good. The vicious cycle of violence must be broken— at least for the new generation. This compromise and the scene where Nik leaves and the last person he departs from is Rudina is so beautiful as it is just and right.

The Forgiveness of Blood is a victory of the art of cinema. A co-production of USA, Albania, Denmark and Italy, the film is in Albanian, yet it is a universal film with a universal message. There were a few less than stellar performances of minor characters, but main actors, most of them nonprofessionals, almost without exceptions, give terrific performances. The film is shot in 16 mm; needles to say, it would have been better if it were shot in 35 mm, but just as with Maria Full of Grace, his first movie, Joshua Marston did it one more time. The film The Forgiveness of Blood – so far– has won the Silver Berlin Bear for Best Screenplay, the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury– Special Mention– at the Berlin International Film Festival, as well as the Silver Hugo at the Chicago International Film Festival. The best award the cinema lovers can give to this movie is to go and see it. And once you see it– The Forgiveness of Blood is unforgettable.