“The Forgiveness of Blood” must have been an incredibly troublesome film to make. I don’t mean technically, financially or logistically, though filming in Northern Albania with mostly first-time actors can’t have been easy. The extraordinary difficulty here lies in the treacherous waters of global cinema. Joshua Marston is an American filmmaker who decided to go make a film in Albania about their oft-publicized blood feud problem. The very idea is already riddled with potential concerns, only some of which are mundane. Beyond the language and cultural barriers, how do you craft a universal story in that context so that it appeals to international (and specifically, American) audiences? And, perhaps more importantly, how do you make a film that is not at all exploitative but rather honestly tells a tale that is neither exoticized nor disrespectful?
Marston, for the second straight film of his career, has done everything right. Just as “Maria Full of Grace” is built on a foundation of compassion and understanding, “The Forgiveness of Blood” tells the story of two Albanian teenagers caught up in an ancient form of conflict without ever losing sight of their humanity. Nik and Rudina are brother and sister, high school students thoroughly rooted in the 21st century. The have Facebook accounts, they text, and they play video games. Yet when a conflict between their father and the next-door neighbor turns bloody, their lives turn completely upside down.
Their father’s brother has killed the neighbor, thereby launching the two families into a blood feud. The details are unimportant here but the important results are that the men in the family must either go into hiding or stay in isolation. If they are seen out of the house the opposing family will kill them. That means Nik must stay physically indoors at all times while his father disappears into the countryside. In the absence of the men, Rudina needs to pick up the bread business and start making deliveries herself with the family’s horse cart. It goes without saying that all of the kids stop attending school.
This is just an early stage in the conflict. Things inevitably change, sometimes gradually and sometimes at breakneck speed. Yet the core of the story is not the intimate details of this blood feud and its actors; we almost never even see the members of the opposing family. Marston is instead interested in how the two kids handle this sudden burden of responsibility. They are expected to almost immediately turn into adults, Rudina working to feed the family while Nik assumes the responsibilities of a man stuck in a feud. This dichotomy is portrayed beautifully by Marston. There’s a moment later on in the film when Rudina must sell the family horse for cash. We see her adult determination to barter and get a good price, haggling with skill beyond her years, yet her childlike love for the horse shines through on her face as she finally lets it go. These two teenagers could be from anywhere in the world, the universality of their situation having been captured perfectly.
Yet at the same time these characters must address the very specific problem of the blood feud. Nik, now expected to be an adult in responsibility, is still ignored when it comes to decision making. Yet his youthful frustration with the older ways of isolation and complex, long-term mediation force him to take action and fight for a return to normalcy. He’s essentially been cut off from his adolescence by this house-arrest, separated from his friends. His father, on the other hand, refuses to back down and will not even consider any sort of dramatic and speedy solution that will get his older children back to their normal lives. The intergenerational conflict becomes the major theme of the film, as Nik tries to do everything in his power to get his life on track.
That tension between parents and teenagers is also the most universal aspect of “The Forgiveness of Blood.” While other filmmakers have traveled internationally and come back with works based entirely on sympathy and exotic appeal (“Slumdog Millionaire” comes to mind), Marston has created a work that builds upon human commonalities, empathy and recognizable experience. His extraordinary research (including learning the Albanian language) allows for profoundly true narrative details that vindicate rather than exploit his subject, while his emotional focus will connect any audience to these characters without needing a single ounce of intermediation. It’s extremely impressive cinema and I can’t wait to see where he goes next.