Director Joshua Marston once again casts his attention beyond conventional First World subjects in “The Forgiveness of Blood,” the remarkably relatable tale of an Albanian teen who finds his otherwise modern life derailed by the six-centuries-old tradition of problem solving via blood feud. As in “Maria Full of Grace,” Marston applies his accessible indie style to an exotically set story, shot on location and featuring impressive perfs from non-pro actors working in their native language. Though “Blood” lacks much of “Maria’s” momentum, mostly because its hero spends the film under house arrest, it should still travel international arthouses with ease.
Nik (Tristan Halilaj) is just like any other teenager, more interested in motorcycles and girls than in carrying on the cash-strapped family business. Given the chance, he’d like to open an Internet cafe in town, though his plans are cut short by a dispute between his father, Mark (Refet Abazi), and hot-headed Sokol (Veton Osmani), who inherited land that had been in Nik’s family for generations and now taunts the previous owners by refusing to let them pass.
The grown men’s disagreement seems little more evolved than a simple schoolyard squabble, and yet, in a confrontation the film allows to unfold offscreen, it easily escalates to violence, with Mark and his brother (Luan Jaha) stabbing Sokol to death. Though the Albanian police swiftly arrive to arrest Nik’s uncle, Mark manages to escape into hiding, leaving the rest of his family as targets for revenge.
The sins of the father are quite literally visited upon the sons in Albania, where a 15th-century legal code called the Kanun, still observed today, allows for the injured party to seek retribution by killing a male from the murderer’s family or seek outside mediation. A unique loophole protects the offending clan, however, so long as they remain respectfully out of sight at home — a situation that effectively cuts short all of Nik’s plans involving school, friends and romance, if only he can stay inside, which won’t be easy since he has his eye on a lovely classmate (Zana Hasaj).
The odd thing about this story — apart from the fact that Marston traveled halfway around the world to tell it — is that even without the Kanun, it could have been told in South Los Angeles, the Bronx or even contempo Tel Aviv (as in “Ajami,” which boasts a similar premise and a far flashier style). But Marston almost certainly saw “Blood” as a chance to explore the far bigger issue of how a country like Albania copes with the tug-of-war between its past (from the recently fallen communist regime all the way back to the rigid code of rules established by prince Leke Dukagjini half a millennium earlier) and future.
Intent on getting the details right, Marston enlisted Albanian helmer Andamion Murataj to co-write, co-produce and help cast the film, and together they craft a story that feels resolutely focused on its young characters. While Nik shows all the narcissism of youth, thinking of the feud solely in terms of how it impacts his life, his resourceful 15-year-old sister, Rudina (Sindi Lacej), emerges as the most respectable family member.
In her father’s absence, Rudina takes over his daily delivery route and even manages to expand the business in the process. Metaphorically speaking, she is the poster girl for Albanian progress, while Nik is too busy resenting his equally self-centered father for putting him in this position to see anything but escape as a way out.
Considering the premise, a certain stagnancy can’t be avoided, as Nik and his younger brother, Dren (Elsajed Tallalli), start to go stir-crazy in the house — which is practically a concrete prison unto itself — though there’s suspense in the fact that Sokol’s family is bloodthirsty enough, they can’t be relied upon to follow the Kanun to the letter. Still, Nik knows full well he’s risking his life every time he sneaks out. In the end, the tragedy of “Blood” is the fact that it forces Rudina, who shows the potential to go on to college and succeed on her own wits, to become the man of the house.
As in “Maria,” Marston mixes naturalistic handheld camerawork with artfully framed compositions in which shallow focus and white-hot sunlight bring us inside the characters’ heads. He also collaborates once more with composers Leonardo Heiblum and Jacobo Lieberman, whose score feels entirely appropriate to the locale, supplemented by a number of Albanian songs.