Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Forgiveness of Blood

Eight years after his auspicious feature debut, the compelling Colombian drug-mule saga "Maria Full of Grace," director Joshua Marston returns with another potent, immersive look at a world culture, the fascinating "The Forgiveness of Blood," about the Albanian tradition of blood feuds, an extralegal form of homegrown justice in which the family of a murdered man has the right to avenge his honor by killing the murderer or another man in his family. Because the family home is considered sacrosanct, however, there are hundreds of Albanian families living in virtual house arrest, the sins of the fathers visited mercilessly on the sons, their lives on indefinite hold until, years later if ever, the feuds are resolved through a ritualized process of mediation.

The cancerous practice of blood feuds - based on a primarily oral set of traditional laws called the Kanun - began in the Albanian highlands and was outlawed wholesale by the communist regime in power until a generation ago. When communism gave rise to a weak, fledgling democracy, with an undercapitalized justice system ill-equipped to prosecute violent crime, the problem metastasized, coming down into midsize villages (such as that in the film) and now into large cities (Shkodra, the capital Tirana) where land is at such a premium that, in one case, a murder and subsequent blood feud started when one family, one evening, placed some baskets over an informal line in a space shared with another family.

The murder in the film takes place early on, after words are exchanged at a public house, when one man blocks another from taking a shortcut over his property into town. "When my family owned this land," Zef, the aggrieved man, says, "we would let anyone cross it." Within days, he and his brother have killed the landowner, Sokol - they raise a weak claim of self-defense - and left the village. Later, the brother turns himself in and goes to jail, but Zef remains in hiding, which magnifies the pain and shame felt by Sokol's family. They take aim at Zef's elder son, Nik, a teenager who had just been coming into his own - physically and socially - but now spends his days homebound, bouncing a basketball off the wall, carving up another wall with a dull knife, pumping the homemade weights he's fashioned out of plant-pot moldings. His sister, Rodina, meanwhile, takes over Zef's bread-delivery route, but it's too dangerous for any of the four children to return to school.

Marston has taken his time and done his research, and his film (featuring mostly nonprofessional actors culled from interviews with thousands of schoolchildren and others) touches meaningfully on myriad aspects of the custom of blood feuds. There is tension between the modern and the traditional. Nik talks and texts on his cell phone and exchanges camera-phone videos with a girl he'd had a crush on at school; he'd even dreamt of opening an Internet cafe. Yet he finds his adolescence - his life, from his perspective - a hostage to an old worldview. There is the concept of a "besa," a limited form of furlough, revocable at will, which Zef's family may, after some indeterminate period of time, ask of Sokol's family, to allow Nik, for example, to return to school for two weeks. There are fascinating issues of gender. The male elders in the families decide, on the victim's side, how and when vengeance will be exacted and, on the perpetrator's side, how and when to seek besas and, eventually, forgiveness. "It's not for us to get involved," Sokol's sympathetic cousin tells Rodina, who, like her father, always sells her the warmest bread. Yet, with her father on the lam and her brother housebound, it's Rodina who must earn the family's living, and who shows a prodigious aptitude for bargaining and navigating the black market. There is a cottage industry of mediators, respected elders who, for a price, represent the perpetrator's family in expunging their debt to the victim's family. In the film, Zef's family declines to engage the services of Hasan Pema, who has resolved 47 such cases, viewing him as an outsider and asking, "How does he make money if the feuds are resolved?" Interesting question. There are many more.

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