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Blu-ray Review: The Forgiveness of Blood – The Criterion Collection

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Director Joshua Marston (Maria, Full Of Grace) delivers a story about how traditional blood feuds in northern Albania still affect and create tensions between people also dealing with an ever-evolving social and political climate. The cast consists of both established and new actors from the region, some of whom have also personally been affected by blood feuds within their communities.

The Movie

In order to fully appreciate everything that’s happening in The Forgiveness Of Blood, it’s important to understand a little about the tradition of blood feuds in Albania. Blood feuds are generally violent disputes between family groups that, regardless of how they started, affect and involve every member of those families. They can arise for different reasons, although many of them tend to center around property rights. Tensions may escalate over time or quite suddenly, but if a death occurs as a result, then a blood feud is born between the families, where retribution is demanded (and with tradition, it’s more or less expected) by the family who lost a life. It’s eye-for-an-eye taken to a broader and almost unregulated degree. The entire family of the person who took the life will often go into hiding, sometimes for months or years, because all of them, especially the males, become potential targets – or recompense – for settling the dispute. The family who suffered the loss are usually unwilling to rest the feud until they have either taken a life in return or there has been extensive (and often expensive) mediation in order to settle affairs.

Blood feuds in the region seem to have arisen for two reasons. The first is because of a perceived absence in adequate political means for justice. Albania for decades found itself in flux between different systems of governmental rule, as well as self-rule, which often left regional peoples unmoored from police protection and justice systems, something which didn’t really lesson after their current autonomy arrived in the 1990s. As a result, a form of traditional law – captured in what is known as the Kanun – found some resurgence and tried to fill the void, and one of the things it allowed and semi-codified were these blood feuds to settle fatal disputes between families. But even the Kanun was only loosely followed in the details, often adhered to more by oral tradition than its written tenets, and resulted in something that often created more disharmony and confusion instead of less.

But the second reason for blood feuds was to uphold a traditional sense of honor for persons and families as a whole. A murder was seen as bringing shame to a family, but in order to restore honor the life must be avenged. To not do so was seen as weak and dishonorable to those directly involved, as well as to the overall family name. This mix of loose tradition and continual retributive justice simply created a vicious cycle, with one side’s attempt at “righting” a dishonor simply creating a reciprocal need for atonement. And back and forth it would go.

With that as a backdrop, The Forgiveness Of Blood focuses on a family who soon find themselves caught up in a blood feud. Mark and his wife have four children, and Mark’s livelihood is as a bread-cart driver. His route passes through a section of land which once belonged to his relatives, but when the government eventually turned it over to another family, it become a source of fierce tension between the two groups. Powder keg tension, just waiting to go off. One day the current land owner decides he has had enough, and blocks access to the road, cutting off Mark’s delivery route and in the process threatening him to leave the land alone. Mark and his brother go back over there later to confront the man about it, and although we don’t see the altercation, in the process the man is killed.

The already tense relations between the two families obviously ignite, and Mark immediately puts his family into hiding within their house, while he runs off to escape capture by the police, or worse, capture/murder by the other family. The movie then turns its focus to Mark’s oldest son, Nik, and oldest daughter, Rudina, as they deal with becoming prisoners in their own home, for the former, and having to carry on the family business, for the latter. They are both high school students, whose lives are already much more progressive and globally minded than the tradition-steeped members of even their parents’ generation. Their lives are dominated by cell phones and Facebook, and it soon becomes obvious that the traditions of the Kanun and blood feuds are – even for these Albanians – becoming the dangerous relic of a dying age. The children aren’t able to go to school, or for the most part even leave the house; their father continually on the run against a family with no intention of having the score settled by any other way except their blood.

The film quickly becomes isolated, and honestly doesn’t involve much direct interaction between the families. It’s more concerned with showing the results of this way of life, and how it often creates unwinnable circumstances, and simply begets more strife and bloodshed. It’s eye-for-an-eye, vigilante justice, where no one is entirely clear on the rules – because they are constantly open to interpretation and therefore confusion – and the authorities are often unable and unwilling to get involved. It’s a complete mess, and unfortunately for some people it’s real life. The movie doesn’t so much work to find a resolution, as much as it strives to show the untenable situation it creates. In the process it also more subtly alludes to how misunderstandings between cultures create similar rivalries elsewhere in our world. I really would have liked to have left the film on a note of calmer resolution and relief, but I’m afraid it might have smacked of dishonesty. Although frustrating and tense at points, The Forgiveness Of Blood is quite a compelling film.

Video / Audio

By design, there is not a lot of warmth to the image of The Forgiveness Of Blood, as the style veers much more to verite and handheld techniques, which match up better with the high-contrast and stark look of something more akin to a documentary. The 16mm print shows off a good deal of both grain and noise througout, although it’s an appropriate look for the film, and the balance is very stable and consistent throughout. It’s actually a very nice looking picture, even though extremely fine detail is not the main goal of the style.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is very effective in spots, although much of the film explores a very understated world of sound. The dialogue is very conversation-oriented, and often uses silence to heighten the tension in some scenes. Some of the music cues are the main points where the sound field spreads out, as well as a couple of more intense scenes. But the dialogue, as the main focus, is expertly balanced throughout in an overall very clean mix.

Bonus Material

The primary bonus item is a commentary track by director and co-writer Joshua Marston, who provides an in-depth and indispensable context for the film. He discusses a lot of the cultural and historical issues surrounding blood feuds and how they have long been handled in Albania, which should help to frame some of the scenes a little better for most viewers. In addition he discusses some of the political and technological change that has affected the region in recent years, further highlighting it as a country and people group in a dynamic generational transition. His is one of the most clear and focused commentaries I’ve heard in some time and thoroughly enriched my second viewing of the film.

“Truth On The Ground” (HD, 17:39) is a good behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film and some of its unique challenges, from finding local actors to getting caught up in their own near-blood feuds in regards to location filming. “Acting Close To Home” (HD, 23:28) is a nice companion piece that finds three of the lead actors having a conversation with Marston about their experiences in filming and how the film overall presented the current climate of tradition vs. generational change in Albania.

“Auditions And Rehearsals” (HD, 19:32) shows audition footage of the actors who play the lead brother and sister roles. In addition, the theatrical trailer (HD, 2:24) is included, as well as an insert booklet which features an essay by film writer Oscar Moralde.

Conclusion

I honestly was not that familiar with either Joshua Marston or his previous film, Maria, Full Of Grace, prior to viewing The Forgiveness Of Blood, and therefore wasn’t quite sure what to expect. What I found was a surprisingly earthy and interesting look at generational tensions between blind honor, self-rule in a time of failing governments and a country and people group changing and adapting. Its story arc certainly plays out as something more true-to-life than a typical setup-conflict-resolution structure, and at times almost veers into documentary territory. But the end result is something that feels very genuine, and highlights not only how historical tensions can flare within a community, but also as a microcosm of how tensions between different cultures around the world can flare up from cross-traditions and misunderstandings. Marston’s brand of quasi-social justice filmmaking is both intimate and moving, and will provide many viewers with ample food for thought.

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About David R Perry

  • http://cinemasentries.com El Bicho

    very nice work as usual, David. you have got me interested in seeing this film

  • http://www.davidrperry.com David R Perry

    Thanks. Yeah, I have a feeling this one would have been left to the foreign film circuit if criterion hadn’t given it a little more exposure. Quite an interesting watch, and I’m glad I took a chance on it.