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.
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.
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+]