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In just two features, it’s become apparent that the American-born Joshua Marston has no trouble with crossing borders himself, but the characters in his films do. Unfortunately for audiences, the only distance Marston has had to overcome is a lengthy gap between the harrowing drug mule drama “Maria Full of Grace” in 2004 and a new trek to Albania in “The Forgiveness of Blood,” where a pile of rocks leads to a blood feud between two families that can ill afford it, particularly their younger members.
The rocks and the land they are intended to protect belong to a family that inherited it from the state as a result of working the crops, putting a once-public road under their control. The family’s short-tempered son Sokol is irked that Mark (Refet Abazi), a bread delivery man and his son Nik (Tristan Halilaj) still take the small, dusty pathway in their horse-drawn buggy and after some casual teasing between the two clans at the local pub aggravates the already existing rancor, the road is blocked, leading to an unseen confrontation between Mark and Sokol that turns violent.
“Sometimes the long road is shorter. And safer,” Sokol spits at the bar, words that couldn’t be more wrong even if they anticipate the time it’ll take to resolve things once he is killed. But even if his death lingers over the rest of “The Forgiveness of Blood,” it is ultimately the story of Nik, the 17-year-old son left without a father, who goes into hiding, and can’t leave the house himself since tradition calls for the death of one male family member to forgive another unless a compromise can be reached. The machinations of this alone should be fascinating for anyone unfamiliar with the custom, all handled with an indifference to the actual victims that seems coldly authentic as relatives come in and ponder whether a truce should be sought.
With the exception of a romantic interest for Nik to demonstrate what he’s missing on the outside that rings slightly false, the film’s realism gives a different shade to a story that follows a rather traditional route. At an age where restlessness is a given, Nik is forced to deal with circumstances more serious than most teenagers, but circumstances he still struggles to win control over while his younger sister Rudina (Sindi Lacej), who is allowed to leave the house sparingly, must adapt to being the family’s primary breadwinner. (Her resourcefulness during this time becomes an enveloping coming-of-age story on its own.) Neither of the young actors in these parts were professional before “The Forgiveness of Blood,” but Marston is able to pull unaffected, wonderfully expressive and deeply felt performances from both.
As with “Maria Full of Grace,” the warmth Marston, along with co-screenwriter Andamion Murataj, displays for his characters balances out the tragic consequences they endure. “The Forgiveness of Blood” gets to have it both ways, highly engaging as high drama even if a dispute in Albania feels as though it’s a world away, and yet an experience made intimate by all its richly human details. And of all the borders Marston has surpassed as a writer/director, it’s the bridge he’s forged between fiction and reality that’s most impressive.