With a mere two feature length films to his name, writer/director Joshua Marston has perfected an art that eludes true masters of the form; he has developed something that can only be called cultural empathy. His debut film Maria Full of Grace was a harrowing story of drug trafficking anchored by a stunning lead performance by Catalina Sandino Moreno. The film was shot in Colombia and the United States and was filmed completely in Spanish. Marston proved back then that he had a keen eye for detail that allowed him to be both a tourist and an expert about the place he visited. He shot the scenes in Colombia like a local who still has the capability to be astounded and surprised by his surroundings.
Few films have captured the horrors of immigration and the drug trade with the unsentimentality of Maria Full of Grace and when attention was centered on the main performance, it was truly a shame that more wasn’t said about her director. In The Forgiveness of Blood Marston achieves this for the second time. The movie takes place in Albania, was shot completely in Albanian and deals with a practice which has become almost exclusive to the European country.
The film deals with the centuries old practice of Gjakmarrja which is literally translated as “blood taking” and specifies that a person has the obligation to murder someone else to defend the honor of his family after another murder or social humiliation. The Gjakmarrja is an essential part of the Kanun, the Albanian social code, which began being practiced sometime during the Bronze Age. Despite the unarguable savagery and its defiance of worldwide accepted human rights codes, the Kanun regained prominence after the fall of the Iron Curtain because the Albanian legal system proved ineffective in providing justice to citizens.
Marston’s movie therefore is set in modern times and his objective is perhaps to show a contrast of how such practices can remain relevant in the age of Facebook. When the film starts we meet Mark (Refet Abazi) a middle class man who earns his living delivering bread in a horse-driven cart. Every morning Mark makes his way through an open field until one day he arrives to see that the path has been blocked by the landowners. A few scenes later we learn that Mark and his brother have been involved in the murder of one of the landowners setting in motion the Gjakmarrja. When Mark goes into hiding the feud is automatically passed on to his children, time at which the film transfers its protagonism to his two eldest: Nik (Tristan Halilaj) and Rudina (Sindi Lacej).
The two teenagers not only inherit this dubious honor, they also need to take charge of the family business and after a group of elders decide that the avenging family won’t go after the girl, she resumes her father’s daily bread route, while her brother becomes a prisoner in his own house. As the film builds up towards a fascinating climax, Marston takes his time to show us how the lives of two “modern” youths are shattered by a practice they simply do not understand.
As Nik tries to build himself a gym to impress the girl he has a crush on, Rudina has to make her way through an unruly town where she and her family have become pariah. Marston cleverly captures the girl’s fear by keeping his camera out of the bread cart. The only time when the camera actually goes inside the cart is during the opening scenes where we see Rudina with her father. After the patriarch disappears, Marston’s way of shooting the cart is a moving technique to grant her some safety, although we are always expecting something awful to happen to her. As in his previous film, the director is able to infuse every moment with tension that makes one wonder how wonderfully he would be with a full-on thriller.
The film’s simplicity and the natural wonder that are all the performances might undermine Marston’s less obvious achievements. The major of which is his ability to observe without passing judgment. In his debut film he didn’t condemn his heroine and in this one he watches the unfairness of the feud without sensationalizing it, without ever condescending to the characters or the country. He lacks any sort of Western self grandiosity and instead seems to be the rare traveler who becomes one with the place he visits. This might lead us to other questions, particularly those pertaining to whether Marston has defined his own identity in the first place or is trying to forge one for himself by living in various ones.
For now we can’t help but be enthralled by his humanistic stories which result more relevant and provocative than countless others which watch and preach. Whatever Marston’s intentions are, his journalistic approach to filmmaking and his ability to deliver them with such compelling, dramatic qualities should really make him one to watch.
The Criterion Collection has done a great job in bringing this movie to DVD. The transfer, approved by DP Rob Hardy, is crisp and great to look at. Also included is an audio commentary with the knowledgeable Marston who is also featured in the two featurettes included in the disc. One features a discussion between Marston and his leads in which we learn that they were cast before their parents, another features a more run of the mill behind the scenes look at what went on during the shooting of the movie. Rounding up the extras are a trailer and the audition tapes for the superb teenagers.