Despite this country being home to a number of diverse cultures and ethnicities, American cinema (both indie and Hollywood) skews heavily toward the Exciting Stories Of The White Man. Of course, some of our favorite films fall into this extremely vague category, but it certainly would be nice to see different individuals represented on the silver screen. Filmmaker Joshua Marston seems to recognize this issue and does one better -- Los Angeles-bred, the director has journeyed to completely different countries for his feature films: Ecuador for "Maria Full of Grace" (story set in Colombia) and Albania for his latest, the taut and quiet thriller-drama "The Forgiveness of Blood." He's not simply given a pass solely for venturing out of the safe confines of home (in that sense, anyone with a plane ticket and a Canon 7D would be knighted); his work successfully showcases the life of each respective country without ever feeling exploitative, melodramatic or false. The years in between the two projects have allowed the director to sharpen his skills considerably, and “The Forgiveness of Blood” is an astute, finespun film with plenty of substance in its lean script.
Opening wide on the countryside of rural Albania, a small horse-cart chugs along but is forced to a halt due to some stones blocking the rest of the way. The passengers, a father and his son Nik (Tristan Halilaj), remove the blockade (or rockade) and bemoan the extra work needed to open up a route that shouldn’t be closed off in the first place. In smartly delivered bits and pieces through various character interactions, we learn that the land they are traveling on used to belong to their family until the government had gifted it to the people that had worked on it for years prior. It's a sore spot for Nik’s clan and the opposing one, the latter whom we gather hold bitter resentment for the protagonists’ demands in how they operate the acres they now hold the rights to. Later on, the two family heads bicker at a pub, and while it’s certainly an uncomfortable exchange, we get the feeling that it’s standard operating procedure and nothing to worry about.
Gears briefly shift to follow Nik and his younger sister Rudina (Sindi Lacej) in their innocent teenage life. Both in school, Nik has a main squeeze and talks about future business prospects while his sister, a straight-A student, plans a city trip to buy a new pair of kicks. Rudina hitches a ride on her father’s carriage to help deliver bread, but family pleasantries are swiftly quelled by a run-in with someone from the earlier pub incident. Words are exchanged and can likely be read as nothing more than macho talk -- but once the girl returns home, her patriarch and uncle return to their neighbor, resulting in his death. Nik finds his family in disarray, his uncle arrested for the crime and his father in hiding. A blood feud has been established: the clan of the deceased may take revenge for the bloodshed at any moment, and the culprit’s brood must remain in their home out of respect (sans the females, who are allowed to leave). Both Rudina and Nik are removed from school, with the former taking over bread delivery duties and her brother (restricted to their house) responsible for watching their younger siblings. The prospects of reconciliation involve their dad’s imprisonment, an idea nobody is keen on...until Nik begins to doubt his innocence.
Written by the director along with Andamion Murataj, the two manage to mine as much as they can from the simple plot, culling a story from character desires and cause/effect rather than coincidences or happenstance. It also moves at a pretty perfect pace, especially considering the majority of Nik’s storyline involves him killing time in the house -- not exactly compelling material, but the director dwells just long enough. He also bolsters these moments with uncertainty. Will the teen break and leave his residence? Will the neighboring family attack regardless? It’s all an unsettling mystery, one that is sustained through the duration of the picture, preventing anything from being predictable.
While the hand-held realism aesthetic has been done to death at this point (a style that’s become more of an annoyance rather than one that’s genuinely effective), Marston changes his hand frequently, often employing slow, pensive dolly movements to reinforce the ticking time-bomb tension surrounding Nik and Rudina. Scenes are also predominantly lit with natural light, including interiors, giving every building a slight darkness which augments the unsettling tone.
Amidst all of this turmoil, there is one sweet moment in which a friend sneaks over to show Halilaj’s character a smartphone recorded message by none other than the girl he was crushing on in the beginning. It’s a brief vacation from his prison sentence, though it still mostly serves to remind him of his powerlessness in the current situation and of a life he will likely never get back. Still, it’s quite touching, and it would’ve been nice to see more of these pop up throughout to offset the ongoing tragedy that befell his family. The consistent tone isn’t repetitive, but human moments like these are a breath of fresh air, and in these situations there are likely a few more of these instances to be found between the frustration and sorrow.
Regardless, it’s still a very solid piece of work. Combined with the naturalistic acting of the cast and the reserved hand by Marston, ‘Forgiveness’ has an extremely grounded feeling that you don’t generally get with dramas or thrillers -- most feel put together in a petri dish, either a concoction with overly familiar elements or a collection of histrionic moments assembled to easily stir audience members. This film steers clear of that nonsense, and by the time it wraps to an emotional ending in its own terms, you’ll be glad it did. [B+]