Before we are told a single thing about Albanian blood feuds, the first shot of Joshua Marston’s The Forgiveness of Blood (2011) transmits to us the essence of the film. In a wide and dispassionate gaze at a house and the land it sits upon, the linear boundaries of road and field cut diagonals across the frame. The slow progress of a horse-drawn cart is the only motion we can detect amid the painterly composition. A father and his teenage son emerge from the cart to clear a line of stones blocking their way. They seem tiny to us, and as we watch them, the house in the distance seems to watch as well, lending a kind of gravity. It’s a small moment of action, captured in a way that recognizes that smallness yet also perceives its significance—and its signification. And it’s emblematic of the insight that Marston brings to this film, a poignant tale of the clash between the dreams of a youthful modernity and the strictures of ancient custom.
The custom here is the blood feud, or gjakmarrja, a practice that was harshly curtailed under Albania’s repressive Communist regime but that has become far more prevalent in the country’s past two decades of democracy. As dictated by traditional laws set forth in the fifteenth-century Kanun of Lekë Dukagjini, when a killing is committed, it is regarded as an offense against the honor of the victim’s entire extended family, a debt that can be paid only with the recompense of the film’s title—blood for blood: the killer must be brought to account and killed in retribution. Failing that, any male member of the offending family is a legitimate target if caught outside the sanctuary of his home. Because of this, the consequences of a killing reverberate through an entire community; thousands of families have been forced into seclusion for years in order to avoid reprisals that the police are hard-pressed to prevent. Other families see the feud as the only way to exact the justice their government is unable or unwilling to provide.
The Forgiveness of Blood is Marston’s second feature, and like his first, Maria Full of Grace (2004)—which chronicles the journey of a young flower trimmer–turned–drug mule from Colombia to the United States—it has a sense of the observational that reflects his background in journalism and political science. His films are international “problem pictures” in a broad sense, taking endemic social ills and examining them in a dramatically compelling way. However, he eschews the adventurism of the more facile examples of the genre, which carry with them the unsettling feeling that the problems of a people are being sensationalized to provide spice for someone else’s story. Marston transcends those kinds of problematic portrayals through a close attention to cultural detail, striking a precarious balance to tell stories that are both emblematic and unique. We follow his protagonists and become invested in their specific struggles, but he never lets us forget that many others in the world are caught in the exact same struggles.
Here we follow one Albanian family, that of Mark (Refet Abazi) and Nik (Tristan Halilaj), the father and son from the opening shot. The spark for the feud is the culmination of a long-standing dispute over property: The landscape we see in the opener once belonged to Mark’s ancestors. The property was handed by the government to the family of Sokol (Veton Osmani), and it has become a point of resentment for Mark, who makes a living by delivering bread. His shortcuts across the land and Sokol’s barriers to block his way are two sides of a thinly veiled game of brinksmanship that ends in Sokol’s death and Mark’s disappearance into hiding. In a single moment, the lives of Nik and his younger sister, Rudina (Sindi Laçej), are irrevocably changed.
As in his previous work, Marston builds the story on a foundation of extensive research. In preparation for the film, he and his Albanian cowriter, Andamion Murataj, traveled the highlands of northern Albania, where the film is set, interviewing local children, parents, feud mediators, legal experts, and government officials. In a 2012 interview with the magazine Anthem, Marston described what he was after in this way: “I’m going to places where [others] maybe haven’t been and engaging with the people there, and then converting their stories into something that’s fictional yet based in truth.”
That truth comes across through Marston’s preference for filming on location and his use of lesser-known and nonprofessional actors. In shooting a scene where elders and mediators discuss the Kanun and how the feud should be resolved, he brought in real mediators and turned them loose in front of the camera. Similarly, Marston cast his two teenage leads by visiting local schools and interviewing thousands of students; these actors present to us moments of observation and reaction that feel untrammeled by the presence of a camera. The film doesn’t shy away from the pleasures of storytelling, of a clear dramatic arc with suspense and tension and confrontation. But the performers inhabit that drama and give it the texture of intimate firsthand experience.
Marston structures the film around that experience, as he intercuts between Nik’s and Rudina’s lives under the new normal imposed by the blood feud, with Rudina working among the people of her community and Nik walled away from them. It’s through Rudina’s eyes, through the window of the family’s horse-drawn cart, that we first see the tensions between Mark and Sokol boil over. She observes the menace of the sickle in Sokol’s hand and the barely contained rage in her father’s visage. That moment is one of many where Marston uses the compositional devices of windows and walls, and displays acute awareness of the boundaries that separate people and box them in. We are always reminded of who is inside, who is outside, and what lies between the two.
After the killing, with her father in hiding and her older brother trapped inside their home, Rudina is forced into the position of literal breadwinner, as she’s the only one in the family who can run the delivery route. That route pushes the narrative forward from a conflict defined by its stasis: a threat made against her, in defiance of the Kanun, raises the stakes, while a conversation with one of her customers provides a glimmer of hope for the feud’s end. But the fullest expression of Rudina’s character comes in how she handles the quotidian details of her new circumstances. A shopkeeper tells her, “A girl like you shouldn’t even be selling bread,” but she holds her own when haggling with him, buying and selling cigarettes under the table, doing what she needs to do to ensure her family’s survival.
Ultimately, it is Nik’s struggle that defines the film, however, and we understand the psychic toll of the blood feud by hewing close to his subjectivity. This telling of the story from a teenage perspective again repeats a strategy from Maria Full of Grace. Unlike their parents and elders, youth are always conscious of the way things are versus the way they could be. In The Forgiveness of Blood, tradition and the Kanun dictate how the feud must be handled; Nik’s grandfather Ded (Çun Lajçi) tells him, “That’s just how it works,” yet Nik remains skeptical. He and his generation are in the culture but not fully of it, a distinction made clear in a scene before the killing where the cinematic geography matches the social one. At a bar, the rival families sit at different tables; Mark and Sokol trade barbs across the room while their older, wearier fathers attempt to keep the peace. Nik is there too; he’s the odd man out, the only young person in the room. He sits there. He wonders how the confrontation in front of him, which he has no power to affect, will play out.
That’s the other salient characteristic of Marston’s teenage protagonists: their goals and wishes far outstrip their agency. They try to do things, but more often, things happen to them. The inciting incident of Sokol’s death happens offscreen; we see only the buildup and the aftermath, with the excluded middle magnified in power by its absence. Early scenes capturing the routine of Nik’s life—playing soccer, helping with the bread runs, aspiring to open an Internet café—serve a dual purpose: they set up the status quo that is disrupted by the ignition of the feud, but they also show the horizons of Nik’s world, the physical spaces that are closed off to him by the fiat of a violent tradition.
As the families rally in the wake of the bloodshed and everyone adopts a siege mentality, Nik sees those familiar aspects of his life vanish. His house becomes a prison. The outside world starts to fade away, dimly perceived through the haze of window curtains or in the shadows of his nighttime escapes to see Bardha (Zana Hasaj). Nik’s budding romance is not the only possibility shattered by the feud: the second story of his family’s house remains unfinished. He does his best to patch it up without his father, and the wooden planks used to board the windows look like so many prison bars. He turns it into a makeshift gym, doubting that he has the physical and mental strength needed to bear his new conditions.
With that kind of resonant symbolism, Marston dismantles the usual concept of adolescence—that slow and measured journey toward adulthood that we may take for granted but that certain situations and realities have no patience for. The virtual gunplay of Nik’s video games gives way to instruction in loading and maintaining an actual rifle, in case Sokol’s family crosses the line. And as Nik’s friends party and prepare for university, he is left to contemplate the possibility of spending years in isolation. The feud defies his understanding; it may defy our understanding. Yet it persists. Even in the face of modern technology and legitimate government, it persists.
It’s enough to drive some people to hopelessness and rage, something that Nik enacts when, isolated and alone, he takes a knife and starts slashing at the wall of his room. There are no easy answers to his predicament, and certainly none that could be encapsulated in a film. Marston knows this, and incisively chooses to present the situation with all the gray that its causes and complexities entail. Sokol’s family are not monsters, and Mark is hardly a saint. Nik is being punished for the sins of his father because, right or wrong, “that’s just how it works.” It’s the same reason that his family and Sokol’s family and so many other Albanian families take up the way of the gun. Or, in Nik’s case, the way of the knife: his lashing out is an anomic, maniacal mockery of a prison break because he knows, as we know, that the walls holding him are not physical ones.