Co-writer/director Joshua Marston brings many fine qualities to The Forgiveness Of Blood, his first theatrical feature since his justly acclaimed 2004 debut, Maria Full Of Grace. It evokes the hidebound traditions and incongruities of an Old World culture in the 21st century. It’s an American film about Albania that immerses itself entirely in another culture, including its actors and language. And there really isn’t a bum scene in it. But just as Marston’s scrupulous attention to local custom and devotion to social realism recall the work of John Sayles (Lone Star), his occasionally enervating style also recalls Sayles at his worst. The Forgiveness Of Blood, like Maria Full Of Grace, again finds Marston traveling to a foreign land where his young hero is forced into a life-or-death situation. But where the earlier film was propelled by the tension inherent in its premise of a pregnant Colombian teenager working as a drug mule, the new film labors to generate tension in a situation where it should be crackling.
In a north Albanian locale where horse-drawn carriages share the road with modern cars and the kids are into PlayStation and smartphones, Tristan Halilaj plays a teenager whose future is cast into doubt when the long-simmering conflict between his family and a rival clan boils over into violence. When his father and uncle stab a man from the opposing family—over a slight too petty to dignify such a response—Halilaj and his relatives are confined to their home indefinitely, lest they risk a bloody retaliation that may be coming their way regardless. The independent-minded Halilaj feels hung up in a pointless war that isn’t of his making, but wriggling free comes with huge risks and potentially compounded tragedy.
The Forgiveness Of Blood has a strong premise, and Marston has clearly worked hard to get ancient traditions right, like the presence of mediators to negotiate between the two families—abiding not by the letter of the law, but by codes dating back centuries. And in Halilaj’s character, he’s created a potent symbol of youth and modernity as it bumps up against the intractable forces of historic conflict. But Marston doesn’t have a great facility for suspense filmmaking: Aside from holding one long shot of Halilaj in front of a big kitchen window, clear bait for snipers on the other side, the sense that someone could get killed at any moment is more implied than felt. Earnestness becomes a poor substitute for danger.