Review: 'Maria Full Of Grace' director returns with sad and angry 'Forgiveness of Blood'
Making a second film can be more difficult than making a first film in many cases, and for reasons that are almost exclusively different in each case. With a first film, you're trying to prove yourself in general. You're simply making the case that you can, indeed, finish a film. You can wrestle something up onto the screen. Good, bad, whatever it is, you can do it.
If you are able to make that first film, getting it seen is a second fight, something almost totally separate from the making of the thing. If you are fortunate enough to not only make your film but also get it seen, that's a win no matter what the film is. And if you get it made, get it seen, and it's actually good? Well, the world's your oyster at that point, right?
Not necessarily. Sometimes, you set up expectations, and those expectations become a trap, and sometimes you find yourself either living up to something or living it down, but either way, you're struggling against something that can lead to real frustration, both for you and for the people you're asking to spend money on your films. With Marston, I'm not sure what happened. He made his breakthrough feature "Maria Full Of Grace" in 2004, and then worked a few times for TV and made another couple of shorts and did a little more TV, but It's taken until now for him to get a second feature made. What's apparent from this second film of his is that he has a real voice and a very particular sensibility and we would certainly be better off if he was working more often.
It's interesting that Marston seems drawn to make films about other cultures. "Maria" was a look at outsiders trying to make their way into an American system that they had idealized for themselves. And now with "Forgiveness of Blood," he's stepped into an Albanian community that shows signs of Western influence but that also still seems steeped in its own traditions and histories and simmering resentments and a specific code of conduct involving blood feuds. The film's opening image makes you wonder what time period we're looking at as we see a simple daily act of a horse-drawn carriage taking a road across a field, an act that will later lead to spilled blood and ruined lives and unexpected growth.
Once we're into the film itself, though, it's obvious this is modern-day. We see the internet and first-person shooters and motorcycles and teen texting, all the staples of a modern tech-driven life. The movie tells the story of Nik (Tristan Halilaj), a young man who is working for his father, going to school, on the cusp of manhood in some ways but still a child and still learning in others. When he's with his friends, he's so young. And when he's with his father and amidst other men, he's always straining to be older. He's got girls on his mind, and he's starting to understand the idea of consequences and the future. His sister Rudina (Sindi Lacej) is also starting to reach that age, and she's a smart and funny girl, very much still her daddy's girl. And for both of them, their father Mark (Refet Abazi) looms large as a figure of respect. There's another family in town and a history of disrespect that always seems to be on the verge of erupting into violence, especially after an ugly incident that Rudina witnesses. When things do finally blow up, it's off-camera, and what we're left with is the fall-out, the what happens next of a murder in this community.
Essentially, once a life has been taken, the aggrieved family has the right to take the life of someone in the family of the killer. This can lead to a sort of self-imposed house arrest as young men have to hide in their homes to avoid paying a price for the actions of someone else. Just showing your face outside can be a death sentence. It's sort of crazy, and the film deals with the way a younger generation, starting to step into a larger more modern world, grapples with these old-world ideas that seem to make no sense at all.
The screenplay, co-written with Andamion Murataj, is authentic and pays attention to the smallest details of this daily life. By the very nature of the story he's telling, Marston's movie feels arrested, frustrated, without momentum. I think the best thing about the film is the way it handles Rudina's character. She is the one member of the family still able to move freely through their town, and so she ends up becoming stronger, more self-possessed. She steps up to become the pillar of strength that Nik should have been, and it's interesting to see that her development comes at the expense of her brothers, who seem to crumble under the strain of living with their father's crime. Nik seems to think he can still live a normal life, still fall in love, still sneak out at night, but the film keeps underlining how much he's lost and how fast it was, how utterly arbitrary.
Handsomely made, performed with real credibility, "Forgiveness of Blood" is a modest success for Marston, but the fact that he's finally made a second film and that it's as elegantly crafted as this one is should count as a major victory. I hope it's not eight years before his third feature, and that he continues to follow whatever difficult muse it is that led to his work so far.
"Forgiveness Of Blood" is open now in limited release.