Criterion // 2011 // 109 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Jason Panella // November 7th, 2012
"You need to keep it loaded, or there's no point in having it." -- Mark
Writer/director Joshua Marston follows up his acclaimed debut Maria Full of Grace with The Forgiveness of Blood, about as far from a sophomore slump as you can get.
Brother and sister Nik (Tristan Halilaj) and Rudina (Sindi Laçej) are happy, normal teenagers in modern-day Albania. After their father Mark (Refet Abazi) drags them into a blood feud with a neighboring family, the siblings' lives change instantly -- and they get to witness how easily a culture's traditions can push aside normal lives they took for granted.
You'd be forgiven for assuming The Forgiveness of Blood is purely an Albanian project. It was shot in northern Albania, the largely untrained cast is Albanian, and the plot is rooted in Albanian customs. But give credit to Joshua Marston. As an American, he never turns the film into some sort of "problem" picture. This is a film respectful of Albania and her people, thanks to Marston's journalistic background, who tells a tale that makes no assumptions.
Blood feuds have been a part of Albanian society for centuries, save for a brief respite when the country was under communist rule. These feuds tend to start after someone is grievously dishonored, murder often follows, and the victim's family is then obliged to kill a male from the killer's family to retain their honor. There's enough variation and nuance on how the tribal law (The Kanun) is interpreted that family members often stay hidden in their homes for months or even years. Marston and co-writer Andamion Murataj never fully spell out the intricacies, letting details filter in contextually in conversation. This is a smart move. We get to see the film's blood feud unfold from the perspective of Nik, who is more interested in fixing his friend's motorbike and flirting with a girl from his high school than dealing with ancient Kanun rules.
The feud puts Rudina through the ringer too. While she's not a target of the rival family's aggression, she still has to drop out of school to help provide for the family by taking over their bread delivery service, one which involves a horse-drawn cart. How older customs and technological progression mesh is a consistent thread here. The Forgiveness of Blood never portrays Albania as some backwater hole, but rather a nation where Mercedes and horses share the same road. Still, thanks to a global culture perpetuated by newer technology, the young protagonists are more uneasy and confused with the blood feud than their elders. It's really interesting stuff, and Marston handles this theme like he does the rest of the movie: gracefully without judgement.
Shot on Super 16, the film is visually arresting without ever looking glossy, utilizing natural lighting quite well. The northern Albanian countryside, filled with farms and rolling hills, is presented in warm desaturated earth tones. This new 1.85:1/1080p high definition transfer, supervised by DP Rob Hardy (Boy A), looks great. Nighttime scenes, especially when there's a light source like a candle or streetlight, look fantastic. The same goes for the many scenes shot from the inside looking out, with natural light beautifully streaming through doors and windows. The 16mm film stock gives The Forgiveness of Blood an inherent, slightly hazy quality that fits in well with the rest of the film's visual style.
The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is excellent without being gimmicky. Dialogue is clear, with lots of natural ambience (footsteps on stone, livestock, and so on) accented scenes without overwhelming the characters' conversations. Leonardo Heiblum and Jacobo Lieberman's sparingly used music is also mixed well.
The bonus features on Criterion's The Forgiveness of Blood (Blu-ray) are superb. The sole commentary track with Marston is informative and consistently interesting, talking at length about the film's many Albanian customs and their historical context, how he framed certain scenes, interesting anecdotes about his stay in the country, and much more. In addition to a nice 18-page booklet (with an essay by Oscar Moralde), the disc also includes many featurettes: "Truth on the Ground" (17:39), with producer Paul Mezey talking to the cast and crew about the making of the film; "Acting Close to Home" (23:28), a wonderful conversation between the Albanian leads and Marston on blood feuds and how the actors tried to organically form a family unit on set; "Auditions" (9:25), footage featuring the film's two teenage actors; and "Rehearsals" (10:07), which shows the cast and crew working through one of the key scenes.
The Forgiveness of Blood is a fantastic second feature for Joshua Marston; a quiet, realistically tense family drama in a country that receives very little attention from modern cinema.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Unknown, Albanian)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated