Honoring one's father can be an intensely frustrating thing, particularly when his actions have posed a true danger for his family. So goes the tragic inter-relational deterioration as depicted in writer/director Joshua Marston's (MARIA FULL OF GRACE) second feature, THE FORGIVENESS OF BLOOD - a film with a curious shortage of either forgiveness or blood. But what it may lack in terms of its titular elements it makes up for in sustained tension and even dread.
Each day in their small, simple Albanian village, father (Refet Abazi) makes the rounds in the family's horse-drawn cart, delivering bread. It's a humble living played out via old world means in this modern age, but he makes it work - even as cars brush passed him on the road and his teenage children flirt about with their mobile devices. Indeed, the increasingly pronounced clash of the old and the new turns out to be key in this tale, particularly as the young - undeniably wronged and suffering thanks to an incident that is of no fault of their own - find themselves seething with justified disdain for frankly antiquated rules, expectations and traditions. The kind of bloodthirsty severity that must've made some sense in some forgotten medieval era if ever, but now only lingers due to inertia.
The family finds themselves living a life of solitary confinement thanks to a blood feud that ensues over the father's involvement in a territorial skirmish that leaves another man stabbed to death. This, the foremost conventional action moment of the story, plays out completely off screen, thus firming Marston's narrative alignment with the home-imprisoned young while also thumbing a nose at the contemporary expectation of on-screen violence. For the teenagers and their younger siblings living in a state of protective lockdown, the age-old cultural law that dictates that the dead man's family has the right to take the life of a male child of the guilty - even if the guilty willingly turns himself in to authorities - makes about as much sense as an iPod does to a mule.
By focusing on the plight of the youth caught in the middle, Marston audaciously portrays a systemic absurdity that far predates this family and it's incident. The opening image of the film is an extreme long shot of the father and teenage son rolling the intentionally placed barriers, an array of very large rocks, out of the way of their horse-drawn cart while on the shortcut path that instigates the fatal dispute. The shot holds unblinkingly as they arrive, step out, move the rocks, and pass onto the main road - all in the time it takes for a few intro credits and the film's title to grace the screen. From the outset, even not knowing what lies ahead for these momentarily ant-sized characters, the tension is as palpable as the symbolism is overt.
Like a second or third world HUNGER GAMES, we become caught up in a festering study of how the young are persecuted for the maddening affairs and systems of their elders. THE FORGIVENESS OF BLOOD beautifully and meticulously articulates that the future is in grave danger thanks to the shortsighted past as formerly carefree teenage brother and sister (Tristan Halilaj and Sindi Laçej) must respectively cower for his life, and irrevocably shift her own to take over the daily bread running, as all the kids are forced out of school until future notice.
American filmmaker Marston delivers a bold sophomore effort, punctuated with cinematography imbued with tactile light, vivid color, and abundant local talent. To say that there's no action sells far short the effect and goal of THE FORGIVENESS OF BLOOD, a film that resists boredom at every turn. Halilaj and Laçej carry the picture with assurance equal or surpassing any given Hollywood veteran teen pairing. Their characters, while never transcending the degree of logic and impetuousness inherent to their age group, struggle to honor their self-banished father's insistence for their safely even as they progressively grow jaded to the whole of it all.
- Jim Tudor
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