Monday 6 August 2012

Hemoglobal: "The Forgiveness of Blood"

There is, we must conclude, a reason why the director Joshua Marston has named his production company Journeyman Pictures. As first suggested by his gripping debut Maria Full of Grace, which described the (pardon the pun) passage of a young Mexican woman coaxed into smuggling drugs into the US, Marston is one of the American independent scene's foremost adventurers. He's travelled even further afield for his follow-up The Forgiveness of Blood, which tracks the fallout from a long-running family feud in, of all places, latter-day Albania.

Though the landscape and climate of his second film may be very different from that of his first, Marston again comes to align himself with a teenage protagonist obliged to shoulder a terrible responsibility. Here, his subject is Nik (Tristan Halilaj), a student living with his family in the type of rural community where a horsedrawn cart is still a viable transport option. Nik is nudging towards a promising relationship with a female contemporary when his father kills a neighbour in a dispute over land access and goes on the run, leaving his son to look after his younger siblings. According to the ancient code of this region, the Kanun, a blood debt has been incurred, and must be repaid in kind: whatever tension there is here resides in whether Nik is able, or indeed willing, to pull himself away from his TV and console games, and do what a man in this corner of the world is supposed to do.

However grim Marston's first film got, it retained a lightness about it, both literally (in the sunshine illuminating its bordertowns) and figuratively (the grace embodied by Catalina Sandino Moreno in the title role). By contrast, the new film is - and I should add this is not a phrase one has to deploy all that often in describing the contemporary cinema - rather more dourly Albanian in its framing. Territorially and thematically, we're not all that far away from Peter Strickland's Transylvanian pursuit thriller Katalin Varga, but that émigré venture had B-movie DNA, and the narrative grip that comes with that. Marston's methods result in a drama in a decidedly lower-key, one closer to grim naturalism: the interest lies less in the cranking-up of the feud itself, which would have nudged the film into thriller territory, as it is in the state of fear and uncertainty that comes to surround the protagonist.

This leaves us watching Nik training himself up, either to mediate or fight back against the threats made against his clan; once encamped, it takes a good while, and rather too much teasing play with guns and knives, before anything gets resolved, and even then I suspect that resolution won't satisfy everyone. I wondered whether Marston hadn't just transposed the fathers-and-sons angst prevalent in so much American cinema to a new, more exotic locale: certainly Halilaj is exactly the kind of tall, athletic sort called upon to play quarterbacks desperate to prove their worth to unconvinced coaches in sports movies. A journeyman effort, then: you don't want to be negative about a filmmaker who is already this well-travelled and independent of spirit, but The Forgiveness of Blood feels more like a consolidation of Marston's talents than it does the confirmation we admirers had been waiting for.

The Forgiveness of Blood opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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