The Forgiveness Of Blood (Falja e Gjakut)

US/Albania (2011) Dir. Joshua Marston

In rural Albania Mark (Refet Abazi) earns a modest living from delivering bread with his small horse drawn cart but his route includes cutting across the field belonging to a neighbour Sokol (Veton Osmani), although it once belonged to Mark’s family. Sokol is tired of Mark using his field as a shortcut and the dispute gets personal leading to the death of Sokol by the hands of Mark and his brother Zef (Luan Jaha). The latter is caught but Mark manages to escape and goes into hiding but under an ancient Albanian law, Sokol’s family invoke a blood feud against Marks family, which allows for the legal murder of a male of the offending family – in this case eldest son Nik (Tristan Halilaj). With their lives in danger it falls upon eldest daughter Rudina (Sindi Lacej) to take over the delivery business while Sokol’s friends and family continue to intimidate Mark’s family.

It will no doubt come as a shock to many of us that a legit blood feud would exist, although some leeway would be allowed were it confined to the dark ages. Unfortunately this stark and eye opening film from Joshua Marston – who gave us the stunning expose on drug mules Maria Full Of Grace – reveals that it is still an active concern in some parts of modern Albania. This is a bold tale that shows the clash between traditional thinking versus the modern ways of the impetuous youth who refuse to bow to such archaic tenets.

A little history lesson is required to help understand the rationale behind the film’s central premise. In the 15th century a prince named Leke Dukagjini compiled all of the Albanian customs and practices into a tome that became known as The Kanun of Leke Dukagjini later the Kanun for short. For the Albanian people it governed their behaviour ever since but as time has passed its influence on society has lessened, relegated mostly to northern parts of Albania. The blood feud is a way of restoring honour to the aggrieved family with the idea being that an eye for an eye will balance out the initial crime. That’s probably a reductive summary but that’s the bones of it. Traditionally it is only the males that are at risk but there is a temporary reprieve called a besa (“the word of honour”) which is essentially a cease fire of twenty four hours before any blood can be spilled.

Whilst knowing all this makes the story a lot clearer since it isn’t explained anywhere in the film for the uninitiated, it doesn’t make it any easier to reconcile the idea of such a barbaric custom is still being practiced to this day, but it is and this film gives us a look at the effect it has on the culprit’s family and not the victim’s, in a case of the sins of the father being paid for by his innocent offspring. Nik has an idea of opening an internet café and falls for a classmate while Rudina is a Grade A student on her way to big things. To say their lives are destroyed by Mark and Zef’s actions is an understatement and we follow their attempts to get things back on track while the imminent threat of retribution is always looming near.

The actual killing is not shown; the first we learn of it is when two men appear at a garage where Nik is fixing a moped to drive him home where the police are waiting to question him about Mark’s whereabouts. From hereon in Nik and the family are now prisoners in their own home. As the juniors of the clan, Dren (Elsajed Tallalli) and Bora (Esmeralda Gjonlulaj), don’t seem to be fazed or indeed aware of what is going on while Nik goes stir crazy from being unable to see his friends and his new love, with all attempts to alleviate the boredom serving only to irritate everyone around him.

Marston subtly weaves in a tale of forced growing up for our two teenage protagonists behind the cultural sledgehammer of the main blood feud plot. Nik is keen to be the man of the house in his father’s absence and offers to face up to Sokol’s family to settle the feud but is denied for being a teen. It’s a noble gesture but a frightening imposition to put on someone so young, yet it symbolises the progressive thinking of the modern generation as opposed to the rigidity of his elders. In this role, Tristan Halilaj excels as a typical happy go lucky teen who suddenly assumes the weight of the world on his skinny shoulders. An unassuming looking lad rather than a hunky pin-up type, Halilaj astutely essays the slow burning effect of the ennui being housebound has on him and the emotional strain wanting to resolve of the blood feud.

Meanwhile Sindi Lacej as Rudina suffers similar frustrations having to deal with rival bread delivery services who usurp her with the cynical use of a car to get to the clients quicker. She decides to supplement the falling income by selling imported cigarettes but as the enforced bread winner of the family she too feels undue pressure beyond her years. Lacej plays Rudina with a steely determination and is thoroughly believable as the little girl forced to step out into the big world, engendering the most sympathy from the audience.

As before Marston bravely tackles another subject rarely covered in cinema, offering us a rare insight into another closed off world. The Forgiveness Of Blood is a convincing and sensitively handled film that captures the mundanity of Nik’s interment born from the pressure of a destructive old practice that both educates and engages the viewer thought its aching frankness. An insightful and deeply affecting film.