Mirroring the cycles of violence that rocked formerly peaceful communities in the Balkans starting in the 1990s, the Albanian-set The Forgiveness of Blood unfolds as a parable about the follies of blood feuds. But Joshua Marston’s film, which takes place on the mountainous plains of a farming community in which the men of two families come to murderous blows over a seemingly minor concern, eschews the explicitly dramatic in favor of the small-scale, unfolding at its own unhurried pace which mirrors that of the characters confined to their house via the dictates of the local tradition.
After two middle-aged men confront a neighbor over the latter’s unwillingness to let them drive their cart through his land, the neighbor ends up dead, one of the men winds up in jail, and the other goes on the run. We never see the incident, and the specifics of what exactly happened are never made clear, but what matters isn’t who did what, but the culture of macho pride and ingrained tradition that not only allowed the killing to occur, but dictates the ritualized aftermath. In accordance with village law, the family of the killers is to be confined to its house indefinitely, at least until the man on the lam can be turned over for jailing.
Marston’s film focuses primarily on that individual’s family, particularly his teenage son, Nik (Tristan Halilaj), and his younger sister, Rudina (Sindi Laçej), as they attempt to negotiate the circumstances of the local dictates and carry on with the family’s living. This latter task falls to the young woman who, alone among the family, ventures out from the house on a regular basis, taking her horse-drawn carriage across town and moving from selling bread to a more profitable cigarette-dealing venture. Her stubborn willfulness is the film’s emotional center, and while Nik’s determination to lead a normal life (building himself a makeshift gym, trying to maintain contact with a love interest) carries much of the film’s dramatic weight, it’s only in the scenes involving Rudina that the film really feels alive.
Necessarily constricted by the device of the family’s confinement whose sense of isolation Marston is under some obligation to communicate to the viewer, the film has a largely static quality, only occasionally enlivened by larger glimpses of detail. Of particular interest are the scenes of negotiation between representatives of the two families which give a feel of immersion in a particular place and its customs. But for the rest, Marston’s film too often feels like an easy parable about the absurdities of a practice that doesn’t take much effort to portray as inherently ludicrous. By focusing intensively on individual characters, the film wisely avoids giving its material a large-scale epic quality it can’t sustain, but it also results in a project that lacks the complexity to register as more than a handsome little sketch.