It’s common knowledge that teenagers tend to be unbearable. Being around the pubescent is almost as intolerable as being oneself a teen. The dichotomy between an adolescent’s perception of a world that seems entirely unjust and that world’s perception of his selfishness lies at the center of Joshua Marston’s The Forgiveness of Blood.
Marston’s chief conceit in approaching adolescence is that he forces his commentary to lurk behind esoteric Albanian traditions. Nik (Tristan Halilaj) leads a pretty typical life for a high school kid: he and his friends trade cell phone pics, fix up their scooters, and dick around on the internet. His family has lived in the same rural Albanian village for generations, and while modern technology is a part of everyday life, Nik’s dad, Mark (Refet Abazi), still uses a horse-drawn carriage to deliver bread. Mark squabbles with one of the town’s post-revolution landowners about his horse’s route. The squabble turns violent, and Mark and Nik’s uncle murder the man. The uncle is arrested, the dad flees. The squabble and the murder feint at the antimony that lingers after a revolution — Nik’s family had owned the man’s land for years, but Albania’s transition to democracy (a process less than 20 years old) had caused the family’s tacit superiority to evaporate. How this continuing process affects the daily lives of Albanians is a subject for another film; it’s only glanced at here.
Instead, we learn that centuries-old Albanian custom permits the dead man’s family a retributive killing; any man in Nik’s family can be made to repay the blood. Should they leave their home, Nik and his young brother would be fair game. It’s this subjugation — unreasonable and awful in their own right — coupled with a teen’s typical impulses towards alienation and victimhood that draw out Nik’s stubbornness and test his aggression. Everyday events, like flirting with the girl he likes or fretting about his scrawniness, magnify themselves into greater epics than they already were. Marston has a real understanding of how kids interact with the world, and Nik is as well drawn a teen character since perhaps last year’s Margaret. When Nik begins to perceive life as inherently, monumentally unfair to him, it’s equally as much to do with the disposition of his demographic generally as with the fact that, for him, it’s pretty true.
What complicates and ultimately weakens Marston’s film is its attachment to the culture it leeches from. The film leans on an alien culture’s traditions in a way that soon gets politically complicated. There are ways in which setting the film in Albania allows Marston to further approach Nik’s story; after all, growing up often has plenty to do with recognizing that which you will never understand in the generation that preceded yours. Nik has a special contempt for a tradition that dooms him merely because of his father’s cowardice, but he also already had enough to be annoyed about (the rationing of his phone card minutes, for example). Marston, however, ends up diluting his film’s energy by relying on — even exploiting — a tradition he had read about in a magazine a couple years ago. That blood feuds still exist is astonishing, sure, but by grafting his story to this morbid heirloom, Marston has forced an appalling anachronism to do his film’s heavy lifting.
The film does have successful spells. Nik’s sister, Rudina (Sindi Lacej), is forced to take over the father’s bread delivery. Watching her adapt — first as she discovers that a rival delivery driver is trying to push her out of business, and then as she moves into more lucrative distribution avenues — is invigorating, and Marston successfully conveys the outright unfairness of Rudina’s lot as well as her dogged perseverance. Many of the film’s performances, culled from locals and non-actors, are convincing and generally superb. And Marston’s sketch of the relationship between father and son is particularly strong, not only in how deeply valuable loyalty is to this family, but also in how complicated Mark’s fear makes the situation. Although it cheapens its message at several points, it’s not as if The Forgiveness of Blood lacks rhetorical heft. It’s just that the film is too lazy to arrange its weight in any meaningful way.