Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Forgiveness of Blood: the Albanian Family Feud

Albania is a member of NATO and the WTO. In the south, the former Communist country has responded well to free market reforms, but the rugged north lags behind. Facing grim prospects, the traditional honor-based culture codified in a fifteenth century legal code has reasserted itself in the mountainous region. One Albanian teenager’s life is permanently altered by an extra-legal blood feud in Joshua Martson’s The Forgiveness of Blood (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Supposedly the Kanun of Leke Dukagjini values forgiveness above all else, but it has been implemented as a vehicle for eye-for-an-eye retribution. Explicitly banned under Communism and still not legal per se, the principles of the Kanun have been increasingly if selectively practiced in the Northern region where Nik’s family lives.

When his father and uncle kill an old family rival under circumstances both side prefer to keep murky, Nik becomes the prime target for revenge. However, the archaic code prohibits killing anyone in their home. As a result, Nik must endure de facto house arrest indefinitely, unless he is granted a “besa” or temporary furlough.

As young kid interested in girls and possibly having a future, Nik’s frustration mounts as his confinement continues. This leads to friction when his fugitive father visits and forces his academically promising sister Rudina to become the family’s primary bread winner (selling bread, as it just so happens). It is all quite honest and earnest drama, but it might be better suited to the stage than a movie theater. Frankly, even the most disciplined viewer will get antsy watching Nik mope around the house after a while.

Clearly, Marston wants viewers to share Nik’s mounting claustrophobia and he succeeds well enough to that end. However, the film would have benefited from a wider perspective. We see quite clearly that Rudina is just as much a victim as Nik, but the full social context is missing. There are cops out there (including an officer belonging to the rival family) fully aware of the situation. How do they justify it from a legal point of view? Even the terms of the original dispute raise larger questions. For decades, Nik’s father used a certain road cutting through his late nemesis’s property. It actually used to be their family’s property, but a prior regime redistributed it. Was that the hardline Hoxha regime? Is part of the blood feud phenomenon rooted in resentments from the Communist era? At least in this case, we are left to wonder.

Submitted by Albania as its foreign language Oscar contender, Forgiveness was disqualified because Marston and most of his crew (like cinematographer Rob Hardy) are not Albanian or sufficiently exotic by Academy standards. Still the age-appropriate Albanian Tristan Halilaj and Sindi Lacej are quite poised and engaging as Nik and Rudina.

Eventually, Forgiveness reaches a genuinely powerful conclusion, but Marston takes viewers on a slow and static march to get there. Ultimately, it raises more questions than it answers, while threatening to undermine Albania’s burgeoning tourist trade. Well intentioned but rather tiring, Forgiveness opens this Friday (2/24) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.