Give director Joshua Marston credit — he doesn’t take on easy film projects. Marston’s debut feature, 2004’s Maria Full of Grace, was about a Colombian drug mule and her desperate attempts to find her way in the U.S. It humanized a demonized underclass and featured a critically acclaimed performance by Catalina Sandino Moreno.
Now, in The Forgiveness of Blood, Marston has gone to Albania to make a film about blood feuds and what adherence to a 15th-century set of legal codes known as the kanun has meant for a country on the road to modernization.
“I was fascinated by the juxtaposition between the old and the new, the oddities and unexpected moments one finds in this period of transition Albania is going through,” Marston said in an interview with Miller-McCune. “It’s a truism that the world is changing all around us, but it’s often difficult to see. One of the things that’s fascinating is to go to a place like Albania and see it more clearly.”
You can say that again. Set in a small town in the northern part of the country, The Forgiveness of Blood, with its contrast between the modern and the feudal, plays at times like a science fiction film. The plot concerns a father and uncle who murder a rival in a land dispute, and the teenaged son who is forced to drop out of school and stay at home because under the kanun, the family of the murdered man is entitled to take the life of a male from the murderer’s family as retribution.
What makes this all so bizarre is that this centuries-old ritualism is set in a totally contemporary atmosphere. These people may be poor, but the accoutrements of contemporary living are everywhere: everyone has cell phones, while conveniences like refrigerators, TVs, microwaves, and computers are ubiquitous. Yet all this seems to mean nothing when the people in the film are strangled by the heavy hand of tradition. And the legal system, such as it is, can’t seem to do much about it.
“There is a police and judicial system, and it is functioning,” said Marston, “but the attitude of the police is one of frustration. If, for example, there’s a killing, the police will go to the house of the victim to get information, but the family might be reluctant because the family wants to take revenge, and they don’t have an interest in giving information that would allow the prosecution to pursue the criminal and lock him up. If they go to the murderer’s family, they might try to get information on where he has run off to, but in order to prevent a blood feud, they have to protect that family.”
There are other permutations. The aggrieved family might take their time plotting their revenge, forcing all the men in the other family to stay indoors, thereby slowly killing them economically. There are also attempts to work things out through mediators, but in The Forgiveness of Blood, the clannishness of the killer’s family makes them suspicious of a successful big-city go-between.
And it turns out that these feuds are not limited to rural areas. “It used to be these feuds came out of a streak of resistance by highlanders who were not touched by the central state,” said Marston. “But that’s no longer the case. There has been a real urbanization, and as the country modernizes, people take their beliefs with them.”
Say this for former Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha, who banned the kanun and its uses: under his 40-year reign, only one blood feud killing was recorded. But since the collapse of communism, more than 9,500 males have been killed by blood feuds, and 20,000 males have been under virtual house arrest, afraid to step outside because of an unofficial death sentence.
In the end, the teen protagonist of The Forgiveness of Blood manages to cut a deal that allows him freedom, but only if he emigrates (probably to stay with relatives in Canada). And this does not resolve the feud at the center of the film, which seems nowhere near a resolution.
Ultimately, Marsten’s work is asking a number of interesting questions that could apply to any number of emerging democacries. Is Albania just another Balkan hellhole? Is it ready to enter the modern world? And will the younger generation end the grip of the kanun?
“In some respects, [Albania] is a fucked-up Balkan country,” said Marston, “but it’s also a country of young kids who fall in love, want to set up their own business, and won’t accept the status quo. It’s clear they have taken a large step away from the previous generation and is more modern in its thinking. But I had a number of experiences there that prove to me that certain things run deep, and just because kids have an iPhone, it will take a while for things to change.”