Albania is an extraordinary country. Having been locked into communist isolation right up to the early 1990’s, there’s a sense that it still hasn’t quite come out of the closet. Eerily devoid of those slogans and symbols that globalisation has made ubiquitous in almost every corner of the world, it’s visibly poorer than even close neighbours like Macedonia, particularly in the countryside where horse-drawn carts vie with dust-clad Mercedes along the scarred and rutted roads. It’s a country where even seasoned travellers can feel genuinely foreign.
But as a tourist you’re unlikely to understand the deeper rhymes that underpin much of Albanian society, particularly the medieval codes of honour enshrined in The Kanun which stipulate that, when a murder is committed, the victim’s family has the right to kill a male member of the culprit’s family. It’s a version of an eye for an eye which can lead to an endless cycle of killing, and hundreds of Albanians live as virtual prisoners for much of their lives: you are relatively safe if you do not leave your house. Once outside, you are showing disrespect to the victim’s family, and become a legitimate target. This Guardian article gives an interesting overview.
Joshua Marston’s The Forgiveness of Blood looks at this unlikely but chilling reality, though rather than dealing with the machismo and potential violence, unpicks how the situation affects the innocent family members caught in the middle. When a petty argument over access to land leads to a heated argument, a man is stabbed to death. We do not see the murder because who is to blame is less important than the consequences for the family of the man accused.
Nik (Tristan Hallaj) is 17 years old, a teenager interested in girls and motorbikes, and he is the centre-piece, forced to become a prisoner in his own home whilst his father is in hiding. His younger sister Rudina (Sindi Lacej), meanwhile, takes on the family bread round – The Kanun is a deeply patriarchal doctrine and women do not carry the blood line so are not usually in danger. But whilst their elderly relatives sit around discussing the best route to mediation, Nik and Rudina have to come to terms with new roles. Nik rebels as best he can; Rudina labours with stoic acceptance, doing her schoolwork when she has the time.
The film becomes a slightly surreal though somewhat plodding domestic drama, the danger to Nik and his younger brother intangible for long periods as they play video games and the family bickers under the increasing tension. But Albanian blood feuds can last for generations. Marston’s concern with the day-to-day issues means he is forced to engineer a resolution to the feud, at which point domesticity gives way to the impetus of dramatic resolution. It’s nicely done, allowing each of the characters to vent their feelings.
One of the enduring aspects to The Forgiveness of Blood is the ambiguity with which the different characters view the feud. So deeply ingrained is the custom that few question its parameters. Much of the success of the film is drawn from the sense that the family don’t have much of a choice. Despite the broad vistas which surround their isolated farmhouse, they are locked into an arrangement that they cannot change. What the film offers in terms of authenticity, however, it lacks in momentum.