Self-imposed borders, whether physical or ideological, often define one's nationality, tradition, and gender. American director Joshua Marston is fascinated by the way these facets of identity overlap, constructing films about young characters forced to challenge predetermined limits of control in their respective cultures and communities. That his gaze focuses so intensely on countries outside of his own—Colombia in 2004's Maria Full of Grace and Albania in 2011's The Forgiveness of Blood—makes his thematic concerns even more evocative. Marston's background in journalism and political science shapes his keen directorial eye, especially in the level of detail he brings to examining the familial hierarchies and cultural stigmas at odds in The Forgiveness of Blood. For him, it's not just about the authenticity of place, but also the authenticity of conflicting experiences.
Even though it's set amid the rolling hills and expansive fields of northern Albania, The Forgiveness of Blood is concerned with the restrictions of space. Every frame expresses a sense of division and separation, the naturalistic mise-en-scène often dissected by angular lines and man-made barriers. The film's opening long shot evokes this idea perfectly: A horse-led cart traveling along a narrow makeshift road is blocked by a group of heavy rocks, thus forcing the occupants out to clear the way. Later, it becomes clear that the driver, Mark (Refet Abazi), and his son, Nik (Tristan Halilaj), travel this shortcut everyday to sell bread, despite the escalating verbal threats made by the land's owner, Sokol (Vetan Osmani). Marston reveals the deep-seated animosity between Mark and Sokol during a tense scene inside a local pub, where the men and their kin causally lob accusations back and forth—insults that reek of decades' worth of jealously, hate, and resentment. It's not surprising that a few scenes later, the promise of violence is fulfilled when Mark kills Sokol off screen, producing a crippling blood feud between the two families.
Here, The Forgiveness of Blood becomes a kind of prison film, one where the bars and gates of incarceration are not made of steel, but of the customs and codes of an ancient tradition hamstrung by honor and pride. Nik, a typical teenage boy concerned with material things and girls, is forced into house arrest out of respect for the grieving family, while his younger sister, Rudina (Sindu Laçej), a practical and entrepreneurial spirit, is asked to take on a new role as breadwinner, driving the cart around town to sustain the family business. This sudden shift in gender roles is key to the film's examination of ideological borders and how old-school traditions can shamelessly contradict each other. Interestingly, while Marston leans on coming-of-age tropes to develop Nik's rebellious and reckless reaction to the feud, he develops Rudina's struggle almost entirely out of silent reaction shots during times of duress. Her identity and gender struggle is far more internalized and subtle during these moments.
The overarching sense of tension and discomfort is visualized throughout the film. Mountains and tree lines are uncomfortably stacked on top of each other by way of telephoto lenses, while the cramped interiors of Nik's family home are often captured in wide angles. Marston's camera placement is consistently fascinating, none more so than during Rudina's cart rides through town, where the viewer is placed directly inside the rickety cab. Our perspective rocks back and forth, as if Albania is being gripped by an earthquake, though the chaotic movement is really an expression of the characters' grueling sense of unease.
Ultimately, Marston's script, co-written by Andamion Murataj, allows each young character a choice between individual freedom and collective isolation. The film's sobering outcome speaks to the fascinating ways technology, culture, and family can pull a modern teenager in three separate directions, making their decision-making process a confused and downright brutal battle between loyalty and comfort. The Forgiveness of Blood is one of few modern films to consider such a complex scenario without judgment or rhetoric, giving its many emotional reverberations an infinite quality that's hard to shake.
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Specifics of place are essential to the The Forgiveness of Blood's visual design, and Criterion's high-definition transfer illuminates the many small details that give the film such a lived-in feel. Nik's family home, probably the most important setting in the film, is littered with cracks in the wall and gaps in the mortar, and we are privy to each one thanks to the 1080p image clarity. Exterior shots have a hazy look and nighttime exteriors are nicely shaded. Off-screen sound plays a big role in the film too, especially during the moments where Nik is eavesdropping on his elder family member's conversation. The DTS soundtrack is nicely balanced and allows for the many competing audio sources to be heard clearly.
The breezy audio commentary by director Joshua Marston wavers between a history lesson about Albanian culture and tradition, specifically the role of blood feuds in the post-communist timeframe the film represents, and illuminating behind-the-scenes stories. Most interestingly, Marston discusses the challenges of making a film in Albania, which up until the last two decades was completely isolated under Soviet law. Two featurettes, "Truth on the Ground" and "Acting Close to Home," offer a multitude of on-set interviews with cast and crew, which help clarify the rigorous rehearsal process Marston crafted in order to find the right non-professional actors. Criterion has also included a special nine-minute montage of actual audition footage that acts as a fine compliment to the featurettes. One theatrical trailer is included, and a booklet featuring a superbly detailed and engaging essay by film writer and Slant contributor Oscar Moralde rounds out the supplemental package.
Essentially a prison film where the bars are age-old customs and contradictory traditions, The Forgiveness of Blood imagines a modern Albania increasingly at odds with its cultural roots.