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Film Review

The Forgiveness of Blood

Since prehistoric times, in parts of Europe, a unwritten system of governance developed. In Italy, the laws of vendetta still exist, and although unwritten, are highly influential in rural areas where for centuries each village or small region was isolated and under a weak, if any, central government. Blood feuds could continue for years. The killer would usually flee, although his family might be subject to reprisals. Although nominally "blood for blood", often the families of the victim would receive payment in the form of livestock or cash, and an apology from elders of the killer's family. Sometimes mediators would be brought in to negotiate the terms that would satisfy both sides. Failure to follow these rules could result in the offending family being driven out of the community, or worse. Similarly in the Balkans, especially Albania, a system called the Kunan, regulated much of life and provided a framework for living and resolving disputes. After Albania became a police state in 1946 under Enver Hoxha, the Kunan was repressed, but after the fall of Communism, many of these customs regained their importance.

Joshua Marston, an American writer and director, spent some time In Albania, and was intrigued by the stories told to him of blood feuds. He interviewed a number of families, then began to co-write, with Andamion Murataj, an Albanian author, the story of a killing in a small Albanian town that changes the lives of a family, and in particular, the impact on the children. The backdrop is the struggle of the younger generation for modernity, which often conflicts with the traditional patriarchal society's way of life. Mark, the father, loving but stern, has four children: two teenagers, Nik and Rudina, and two younger children. They live just outside of the village, and Mark supports the family by delivering bread from the local bakery to cafes and homes. He only has a horse cart, which represents the old Albania. Nik and Rudina are in high school, doing well, both popular, and both thoroughly modern. Nik even has a girl friend and wants to open an internet cafe in the village. One day, when the father is returning home after finishing his deliveries, he discovers that the shortcut he takes to get to his house has been blocked by an unpleasant neighbor, who had bought the land next door. This is a route that had been used for generations. Mark removes the rocks and continues to use the shortcut. The neighbor makes insulting remarks to Mark at a bar a few days later, and Mark again finds the route blocked. Later, Mark and his brother confront the neighbor, and then everything changes. The father has to flee, and Nik must stay confined in his house, or risk being killed by the neighbor's cousins. The Kunan prohibits revenge killings of a male in his own home. The women are free to go about, so Rudina has to take over her father's bread route. She is a good student, and had planned on going to college, but this is the family's only means of support. She learns how to hitch the horse up, and drives the horse cart to the bakery to deliver the bread. Nik's confinement demoralizes him. And the story continues.

"The Forgiveness of Blood" is a sensitive and intimate look at rural Albanian society, as the younger generation reaches for modernity, while the older generation is trapped in age old customs. The acting is outstanding, and the main characters all nonprofessional Albanian actors that the director recruited after a six month search. No one could guess that we are not watching experienced actors, including the children. The film's style is natural, perhaps modeled after Dogme 95, with handheld cameras and what appears to be natural lighting. Filming was done entirely in Albania and the glimpses of the land, people and culture are fascinating and something rarely seen on screen. Some scenes resemble a documentary, in the best sense. This is not a dramatic film, but unfolds at a natural pace. Yet Marston has given us a powerful film, with a poignancy and humanity that long linger. I loved "The Forgiveness of Blood", and think it is equal to his highly acclaimed first film, "Maria Full of Grace" (2004). Running time is 109 minutes. Just opened at the Bridge Theater, in Marin at the Rafael, and in the East Bay at the Shattuck.

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