Home Video Hovel- The Forgiveness of Blood, by West Anthony
Being a teenager pretty much anywhere is a raw deal, but you haven’t seen a coming-of-age story quite like this. The Forgiveness Of Blood, the second film from director Joshua Marston (Maria Full Of Grace), is an engrossing and tragic story of a brother and sister who are forced to grow in unforeseen ways when their family is embroiled in a blood feud in Albania. While the concept of blood feuds may be unknown to most viewers, this film will teach you more than you ever wanted to know.
Nik and Rudina are teens who, as the film begins, are just doing the things most other teens do: going to school, helping around the house, hanging out with friends and flirting with girls. When their father Mark allows tensions between his family and another clan to escalate into violence, Mark is forced into hiding and Nik, bound by traditional Albanian law known as Kanun, must stay in his family’s house in order to avoid retribution. (Here’s the short version of a blood feud in action: let’s say Tyler kills David’s cousin as a result of some dispute. David now has the right to avenge this killing by killing Tyler OR a male member of Tyler’s immediate family, BUT David can’t just walk into Tyler’s home and kill him, SO David has to wait until Tyler or one of his male kinfolk step outside. Women, by the way, are never targeted. The practical upshot is that as long as Tyler stays in his home, he won’t get killed. And he could be in there for a long long time — there are currently a good many Albanians who have been stuck in their homes for a decade or more.)
Nik’s life naturally comes to a standstill. He loafs about the house, watching TV, playing video games, at one point bouncing a ball repeatedly against a wall in a sly reference to Steve McQueen’s character “The Cooler King” in John Sturges’ The Great Escape; compounding his dilemma is a reversal of gender roles as his sister Rudina is forced to take up her father’s work delivering bread with a horse and cart. While Nik is stuck in a holding pattern, Rudina unexpectedly comes into her own as a young woman, finding courage and resourcefulness in an inarguably patriarchal society. These issues of gender roles, as well as another culture’s curious concept of honor and the consequences of a father’s sins being literally visited upon the son, are explored with quiet understatement by Marston. He lets the drama and the suspense unfold naturally, without flashy filmmaking gimmicks or Hollywood artifice. The denouement, when it comes, is quiet and graceful, but with undeniably tragic dimensions that linger after the film is over.
Marston’s work is well-served by the new Criterion Collection blu-ray, which presents the film in a spiffy high-definition transfer; along with a couple of behind-the-scenes features, the most indispensable extra is a commentary track with the director, who provides a wealth of information about Albanian culture and the intricacies of blood feud protocol. Some commentaries are strictly take-’em-or-leave-’em affairs, but unless you’ve already got an Albanian scorecard, Marston’s commentary will be a big help. But don’t go into The Forgiveness Of Blood expecting some dry documentarian examination of a distant culture — it is a story first and foremost, and a compelling and well-told one at that. If you gain a little knowledge into the bargain, it’ll be our little secret.