[7 March 2012]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“Is that what you’re wearing?” Rudina (Sindi Lacej) watches her older brother Nik (Tristan Halilaj), trying to dress himself for school. As she begins to help, adjusting his jacket’s sleeve length and suggesting he leave it unzipped, the camera in The Forgiveness of Blood is close to both. “You’re like a girl,” she laughs, as he pushes her away. “Just leave me alone, I know how to dress.” The camera cuts here, so Nik is in frame, alone. “I’m just saying,” his sister says from off-screen. “It looks ridiculous.”
Nik fidgets at the mirror, nervous, you come to find out, because he wants to impress a girl. If his interests are simple at the start of The Forgiveness of Blood (Falija e Gjakut), his life is already complicated, cramped into a small home in rural Albania. As Rudina pushes past him and a new shot shows his mother, Drita (Ilire Vinca Celaj), bustling in the background, the camera pitches to the bed behind him, where his younger sister Bora (Esmeralda Gjonlulaj) and brother Dren (Elsajed Tallalli) sleep: all four kids share one room.
This closeness is magnified in the next few days. Nik and Rudina’s father, Mark (Refet Abazi), regularly delivers bread to villagers; during one run, he and his brother get into a fight with a neighbor and the neighbor ends up dead. The uncle ends up in jail and Mark in hiding: the dead man’s family seek further vengeance, and in an effort to avoid contact, Mark’s family must stay out of sight. This means the end of school for all; while Nik and the younger children stay home, Rudina is assigned to take over her father’s bread route.
But this arrangement is not enough payment for the dead man’s family, especially his brother Sokol (Veton Osmani), who seek further vengeance. Joshua Marsten’s film—cowritten with Andamion Murataj, with input from the actors—makes clear the emotional effects of limits, handed down from an abstracted and seemingly distant past, as well as self-righteous men. The blood feud is increasingly oppressive for the children: at school, Nik and Rudina use computers that grant them at least rudimentary access to a world beyond their village; Nik and his friends record themselves with their cell phone cameras and text one another: the old ways now seem very old, and the teenagers chafe at what they see as their newly imposed limits.
At first, Nik struggles as a child might, imagining he needs to be more masculine, more able to fight back. He settles on what amounts to a non-solution, mixing cement in hallway at home to device a homemade barbell (creating a mess that Rudina feels expected to clean up), and piling up bricks and mortar to construct a small gym. But his projects can’t alleviate his frustrations, which lead to other sorts of acting out: he uses his knife to cave up the bedroom wall, and meets secretly with a couple of classmates, including the pretty girl he likes. She observes the ancient premise of the feud: “Your father, your uncle,” she sighs as Nik looks stunned. “The slightest insult and they go crazy, they act like children.”
While Rudina also sees the unfairness of burdening the entire family with ancient rituals, she is also forced to take a more practical view. Now the primary source of income for the family, she drives her dad’s horse-drawn cart from home to home and shop to shop, delivering bread. Repeated shots of the cart reinforce its backwardsness: she appears in a tiny window, seated sideways, the horse steadily clip-clopping when the camera looks through the window from Rudina’s perspective. When the bread route shrinks—thanks to neighbors taking sides against her family—Rudina starts selling cigarettes too, insisting on deals with vendors just like a man might.
As The Forgiveness of Blood makes clear the different dimensions of Rudina and Nik’s coming of age stories, they share a sense of vexation when their father comes late at night to visit. The younger children begin to fret and sulk, their disrupted lives incomprehensible: Nik and Rudina sit opposite Mark at the table, making suggestions, specifically, that he turn himself in to the police. He refuses, which leaves the kids to sort out solutions as best they can.
That these solutions must be conceived within limits at once shifting and intractable creates frustration and also anger. Nik and Rudina resent their parents, their neighbors, and each other. In this, you can see how they reflect previous generations, even if the kids mean to oppose their elders. They find no solace, but they do find their own ways to resist.