"The Forgiveness of Blood" examines the barriers of ritual and the passage from youth to adulthood in Albanian society with the perceptive detail of a grand literary feat. At the same time, it retains the simplicity of a parable. That it hits U.S. theaters at the height of Oscar fever is a sore point for a movie excluded from the shortlist merely because its director, Joshua Marston ("Maria Full of Grace"), has an American passport. Like the subjects of Marston's story, the movie was trapped by tradition.
In a perfect world, the Oscars mean nothing; in the world we actually live in, they help certain nominees -- particularly those in the foreign and documentary categories -- gain exposure otherwise unattainable to marginalized cinema. "The Forgiveness of Blood" could have used that Oscar nomination, and probably would have landed it, too -- as evinced by the prominence of another nominee, the Iranian drama "A Separation," which has much in common with Marston's work.
In "A Separation," Asgar Farhadi's masterful look at a secular Iranian family coping with the nation's societal restraints, the screenplay cleverly shifts perspective in the final scenes. Initially sympathizing with the flawed, well-intentioned man of the house, Farhadi eventually refocuses from the father to his 12-year-old daughter, foregrounding her sudden realization that she must play the role of arbiter when her parents fail at it.
"The Forgiveness of Blood" involves a similar transition: Albanian teen Nik (Tristan Halilaj) faces the ultimate coming-of-age challenge when his hardened father and uncle fall into a spat with a neighboring villager that results in his death. With the violent act left off-screen, Marston and co-writer Andamion Murataj ignore the particulars and instead emphasize the systematic process of crime and punishment assaulting the family in the wake of the event.
While the two alleged murderers go into hiding, Nik, his two younger siblings and their mother remain helplessly stuck at home, in accordance with the local rules associated with a blood feud. With his father relegated to a phantom-like presence, paying shadowy after-hours visits as they plot their next move, Nik gradually becomes more assertive -- which is to say, more adult. As with "A Separation," an adolescent comes to terms with both the flaws of the parents and the rules bearing down on them.
Marston's slow, talky narrative sometimes lends a prosaic feel. However, it also juxtaposes old-world values and modernity by revealing small reminders of its contemporary setting: Stuck at home, the kids resort to videogames, text messages and cell-phone videos to pass the time. The hints of a larger universe beyond the rustic surroundings set the stage for Nik's ability to acknowledge his need to escape. In this regard, he also mirrors the young star of "A Separation": Both movies provide a window into cultural oppression not only for the audience but also for the characters.
"A Separation" encompasses a far larger spectrum of voices, particularly once it dovetails into a legal thriller and explores virtually every limiting facet of Iranian culture today. It aims wide where "The Forgiveness of Blood" maintains near-theatrical minimalism. Collectively, they assert any society's need for outside perspectives. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, with its paradoxically amorphous and intransigent parameters for awards qualifications, deserve that same wake-up call. In the meantime, "The Forgiveness of Blood" deserves an audience.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? IFC Films releases "The Forgiveness of Blood" in New York and L.A. this weekend after a year-long festival run, and it stands a good chance of opening strong as counter-programming to Oscar fever. However, it will likely garner its best response on VOD, where it has already been available for several weeks.