A clash of the traditional and the new forms the backbone of this rural Albanian drama. The young wear imported clothes and live through their mobile phones and Facebook. The old tend to the land and their businesses as the people have always done before them. The Forgiveness of Blood examines the impact of these harsh traditions on the comparatively sheltered young, with varying success.
As the film opens a rift is torn between two families when one accuses the other of trespassing on their land. Mark, a baker, insists he is only passing through in order to cut an hour from his journey home, but tensions build due to a dispute dating back generations over who should own the land. During an altercation Mark kills the farmer, turning the dispute into a blood feud.
Tradition dictates that the offended family may take its revenge on any adult male in the family of the offender without consequence, and when Mark flees for the hills, his teenaged son Nik becomes the focus of the blood debt. Nik’s hopes and dreams for the future lay in tatters as he becomes the man of the house both literally and figuratively – the law of the land says he may not be targeted unless he steps outside his front door, effectively making him a prisoner in his own home.
Portrayed by newcomer Tristan Halilaj, Nik is an accessible and sympathetic character. He would rather be fixing his moped and romancing his classmate and becoming the family’s patriarch in his own time, rather than being thrust into the role so suddenly and paying for the sins of his father. Halilaj effectively captures the frustrations of a teenager for whom life truly is not fair, most powerfully demonstrated in a sequence where he tears apart a wall piece by piece with no other way to vent his suffering.
American writer/director Joshua Marston, whose last feature was the acclaimed Colombian drama Maria Full of Grace, once again shows a strong ability to guide his actors through difficult performances, but throughout the film you can’t help but feel that there is a lack of understanding of the issues at hand. The effects of the blood feud are well demonstrated, but there is no attempt to address the absurd nature of such feuds or why tradition can still win out over modern values. Because of this, a story which could have plenty to say becomes little more than a personal account of one victim of circumstance – as a result this 110 minute film long overstays its welcome, and it’s easy to see where 20 minutes could easily be shaved.
The film is pleasantly shot, revealing the bright beauty of rural Armenia, although Marston shows an over-reliance on handheld camerawork. The cast as a whole give strong performances, working quite a lot of emotion out of a limited screenplay.
What could have been a fascinating study of a land resisting change has unfortunately become a rather standard character drama. It is a worthy effort, but a deeply unsatisfying piece of storytelling.
(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)