Link to a formal review at the end.
The Forgiveness of Blood is the odd film that’s really good for a whole lot of reasons, that I enjoy while watching it, but that leaves me pretty empty and unenthusiastic. The film won recently (with Le Havre) at Chicago International, so it has a good reputation, and by a lot of accounts, it deserves that. The story is very tight, the performances strong, and it raises awareness – to some extent – of a culture that most Americans are likely ignorant of (I know I was).
The story takes place in a small village in Albania where Nik (Tristan Halilaj) finds himself in the midst of a blood feud when his father kills a rival. Nik is forced into isolation as per the village rules. As long as his father is in hideout and on the run, Nik will be without the normal life of a teenager, which is particularly problematic given his infatuation with a girl at his school. His sister Rudina (Sindi Lacej), who is painted as the brains of the family, is forced to take over much of the manual labor.
The film is pretty dark and angst-ridden. Nik is the protagonist and we follow him for much of the film as he sneaks out, sends people messages on his phone, and generally starts to go a little stir-crazy. There are plenty of nicely done, tense scenes – one where shots are fired into Nik’s house, another where their barn is burned down.
Yet for all of these moments that build upon one another in logical order, and all of the suspense pulled from the narrative, the film doesn’t quite add up. Director Marston’s Maria Full of Grace in 2004 was such a great film because of how focused it was on its protagonist. That film cared about only one person (well sure, you can and should extend its analogy, but in terms of focalization, Maria was the world), and by doing so made us care so much about her. That’s a major problem with The Forgiveness of Blood – I don’t care enough about Nik. He’s pretty likable, though at times I had to remind myself of his character’s age, but it’s the idea of trying to externalize stasis and frustration that doesn’t come across.
Consider one scene: Nik starts scraping at his wall with a knife. His brother and sister come in and try to talk to him. He keeps scraping. Rudina yells at him. He keeps scraping. Finally when his mother comes and takes the knife from him (in a moment that, for a split second, looks like it could turn to violence – well done), does he stop. This is, among other sequences, Marston’s attempt to show the boy’s frustration but it rings false. I like the idea – give him something semi-destructive, but in a harmless way, that is unrelated to anything because, as he’s in isolation, he cannot directly effect anything related to the narrative. But still, it comes off as a last-ditch plea to feel for this guy and I don’t buy it. It’s also kind of pitiful. I’d rather see him break through the wall. Or sneak out with more of a purpose (which granted, he does eventually do), but this scene feels so written. In the sense that the writer has a problem: how do I show this kid’s frustration when all I have is the house? And his solution – random externalization – isn’t fulfilling.
That aside, I also have a problem with how the film is shot. Maybe I shouldn’t. It’s capably made. The cinematography, shot selection, editing, etc are all fine. But they’re just fine. They feel kind of flat and bland, as though Marston and DP Rob Hardy don’t exactly have a plan outside of point (light) and shoot. Hardy’s shot some pretty stylish films – Boy A, part of the Red Riding Trilogy, so he’s got it in him, but alongside Marston things just sort of come out conveniently and without purpose. There’s little effort of content with form to match, and it doesn’t feel like documentary, ethnographic, etc filmmaking. There are touches. For example, the camera tends – until a climactic ending scene – to be far more stable and static interior than exterior, but while adding a level of safe-haven/claustrophobia it doesn’t push that agenda to necessary extremes and by the time this strategy is reversed it’s too worn in and invisible within the story that it matters little.