A Review of The Forgiveness of Blood

No disrespect meant for the Academy Award nominees, but the best foreign language film this year (and one of the finest movies of any given year, for that matter) is The Forgiveness of Blood (a Sundance Selects Release). Its absence from the Oscar ballot does not negate the fact that this is incredible cinema of the highest caliber. From the first lingering shot of the idyllic Albanian landscape, with majestic mountains in the background and windswept fields in the foreground, director Joshua Marston immerses the viewer in a powerful fictional tale about a very real issue -- the impact on the families who end up inheriting the "sins of the fathers" from violent blood feuds in one of the poorest European countries.

The beginning of the story quickly sets up the jarring contradictions faced by contemporary Albanians -- horse-drawn carriages alongside motorized vehicles, livestock on the soccer fields, adults and elders clinging to ancient oral traditions while the younger generation is wrapped up in videogames, television, Internet-enabled computers, and handheld mobile devices.

The greatest service Marston does is to shed light on this paradox as the Old clashes with the New, placing the seemingly unfathomable tradition of regulated blood feuds in human context. We see it played out to dramatic effect as a rivalry over land and access to a previously open road turns deadly. The key moment takes place off-camera, leaving it to our imaginations to determine whether it was truly an act of criminal murder or one of justifiable self defense.  Emotions run high on both sides, so who is to blame and who is to be believed? The story is told through the eyes of young Nik, who must endure prolonged house arrest for what his father and uncle are accused of doing, and younger Rudina, who must become a primary income provider for her family, all of whom suddenly are tormented by an incident they neither participated in nor witnessed.

The performances of the entire cast are amazing, especially Refet Abazi as Mark, the father, whose every moment of screen time is like lightning trapped in a bottle, waiting to explode. He is at once sympathetic, noble, full of righteous fury, and boiling danger right beneath the surface.

The most amazing performances are by Tristan Halilaj as Nik and Sindi Lacej as Rudina, because this is the first acting job for both young stars, yet they manage to bring a genuine believability to their characters. Nik is transformed from a flirtatious youth dreaming of starting a cyber-cafe to a stir-crazy man yearning for freedom, trapped within the walls of his house and the prison of his own adolescent body.  Rudina's journey is even more endearing and heartbreaking as she starts out as a bubbly girl happily sharing what she learned in school with her father and quickly has to grow up and become street-smart to save her family. Watching Rudina's brave actions in the face of crisis and all of her endearing moments of growth were, for me, some of the best moments of the film. Marston does a spectacular job of directing them and building on their natural instincts -- he even manages to give the family's beloved horse, Klinsmann, a personality.

It is not hard to imagine how an archaic legal code (the "Kanun" as Albanians call it) by Leke Dukagjini in the fifteenth century is still adhered to today by some. We have seen it in the frontier towns of America's mythologized Wild West, and in the true life American blood feud sensationalized by the Hatfields and the McCoys. What might seem a repulsive, amoral practice of "eye for an eye" vigilantism is actually a much more complex, regulated system in search of justice, which is often elusive in the power vacuum of post-Communist Albania, still facing economic hardships, low employment, and poor infrastructure. As people in authority and on the fringes take advantage of the systems for their own gain, the victims who seem to suffer most are the innocent masses -- the hardworking families struggling to make ends meet while holding on to their pride and ethics, and most tragically the children facing an unsure future.

The Forgiveness of Blood is an important portait of an Albanian culture in transition told as an engaging drama that will keep filmgoers on the edge of their seats, wondering what will happen next. It is a movie that deserves to be seen and discussed, so hunt it down wherever you are. It will have a limited engagement in New York at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and Landmark's Sunshine Cinema, and in Los Angeles at the Landmark Nuart Theatre, beginning February 24, 2012.