One of the sturdiest and most dutifully respected guidelines for those creating fiction is, “Write what you know.” With his second feature, filmmaker Joshua Marston ratifies a slightly different theorem that he first put forth with Maria Full of Grace, his debut from eight years ago. For him, the exceedingly effective approach is, “Write what you can discover.”
Before he was a film director, Marston worked as a journalist overseas, and his approach to crafting cinematic stories is clearly informed by his time endeavoring to understand people and situations well outside of his personal frame of reference. His fairly comfortable background didn’t suggest an especially autobiographical connection to his debut’s storyline of a Mexican woman whose personal desperation drove her to becoming a drug mule, but that didn’t mean the work wasn’t personal and deeply felt. Built on research and observation, the film developed a moving gravity out of empathy rather than confession. And the foreignness of the subject matter pushed Marston to find and nurture the universal elements within the very specific story.
He employs the same creative tactics with his long-awaited follow-up, The Forgiveness of Blood. This time Marston sets his film in Albania, examining the impact of the local practice of familial blood feuds dictated by the Kanun, the area’s set of laws that have been in place since at least the 15th century. The film’s main character is Nik (Tristan Halilaj, who has some of the same gawky handsomeness of Andrew Garfield), a teenager who is tied to modern conveniences in highly familiar ways, excited to upload pictures to the internet and content to while away hours playing video games. When his father and uncle go to settle a dispute with a neighbor about a blocked roadway, the man they confronted winds up dead and the family is plunged into the grim uncertainty of pending vengeance. With his uncle imprisoned and father in hiding, Nik becomes the likeliest target of the retribution.
Much of Marston’s film is a study in all the ways that the blood feud upends the lives of those involved. Nik is essentially trapped in his own home, unable to return to school or otherwise continue with his normal life of interactions with friends and flirtations with pretty classmates. His sister Rudina (Sindi Lacej) is called upon to make her own sacrifices, trying to maintain the family’s livelihood by picking up her father’s route delivering bread, struggling to maintain business while also potentially standing in harm’s way as one of the few family members venturing out into the community.
Marston largely works with unproven actors on the film, which perhaps sometimes compromises the amount of depth they can bring to the roles but also enhances the authenticity of the film. Lacej is especially good, conveying the worry that naturally results when wisdom subsumes innocence at too fast a rate at too early a point in a life. Marston doesn’t always approach his story structure with rigor, preferring to find his way to the point with loose, naturalistic scenes. That suits the performers, who are usually at their best in the moments that have the raggedness of improvisation.
The Forgiveness of Blood is arguably about the futility of such conflicts, built upon ancient concepts that the world seemingly spun free of centuries ago and interpreted by crusty old men who debate the nuances of life-and-death situations with the same blasé detachment as barbershop denizens chewing over tidbits from that morning’s sports page. Marston doesn’t level the judgment that would seem inherent to that sort of thesis, though. Instead, the film is heavy with the sense of the endless cycle that history can impose. This is how it always will be for no other reason than this is how it has always been. Walls are easier to erect than they are to tear down, and if there’s a greater lesson, there’s no reason to believe it will ever be learned, no matter how much progress has otherwise been made. If Marston’s style sometimes causes him to digress a bit too much – a subplot involving Rudina’s adventures in the black market cigarette trade is especially uninvolving – it also allows him to come at big truths in a gratifyingly unassuming way. He’s not presuming to change the world, but, film by film, he’s going to try his best to understand it.