By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
“The Forgiveness of Blood” brings to light an obscure (but old) system of settling serious disagreements in Albania, a 15th-century legal code called Kanun. One piece of the code holds that a murder might be avenged by the killing of a male member of the murderer’s family.
The astonishing thing is that this movie is not set in the 15th century, but today. Kanun was actually successfully abolished for 40 years by the iron-fisted communist dictator of Albania, Enver Hoxha, but has enjoyed (if that’s the right word) a resurgence since the end of the Cold War.
The film’s American director, Joshua Marston, is canny about setting up this strange juxtaposition of the ancient and the new.
For its opening reels, we meet the teenagers in a rural community in Albania, and they look pretty much as you’d expect: clinging to cell phones, riding motor scooters, nervously approaching the opposite sex.
When a murder happens, the strange law of Kanun suddenly heaves into view. For high-school kid Nik (Tristan Halilaj), this means his everyday teen life is suddenly interrupted by the edict that he must not leave the house. His father was involved in the murder, and as a sign of respect, the males in the family must remain indoors, lest their lives be claimed as retribution.
Nik’s sister Rudina (Sindi Lacej), a gifted student, is therefore yanked out of school and given the family’s bread cart to drive. Meanwhile, the elders of the village sit and smoke and ponder the incredibly complicated negotiations that might resolve this unhappy situation.
Joshua Marston previously made “Maria Full of Grace,” a harrowing tale of a desperate drug “mule” from South America. He is clearly someone who places social issues above simple entertainment, but he does have solid instincts about where the drama lies in a story.
And the story of “The Forgiveness of Blood” is genuinely absorbing. In Albania as in places in America, there are habits and beliefs that you just can’t believe people are still practicing, these reminders that the human brain clearly hasn’t evolved as much as we’d like to think.
The movie is visually unadorned, although it begins with a great shot: the bread truck, seen in longshot, stopping at a field marker, where the riders get out and toss aside the boulders that block the way. As it turns out, this is the precipitating event that will lead to the killing (one family has grown tired of the other using its land as a right-of-way), and it’s superbly executed.
This is a fine movie, and I hope people seek it out. It does have a limitation of the social-issue picture: Each scene tends to be about one single meaning. We get what Marston means us to get, and then move on to the next point; whereas great movies have a certain mystery, and we draw different things from them. Nevertheless, a potent experience.
“The Forgiveness of Blood” (3 stars)
A potent look at the resurgence of a 15th-century legal tradition in Albanian, filtered through a family where an otherwise ordinary 21st-century teenage boy is suddenly caught in a blood feud that demands retribution. From the director of “Maria Full of Grace,” Joshua Marston. In Albanian, with English subtitles.
Rated: Not rated; probably PG-13 for subject matter.