Monday, February 20, 2012

Besa me mucho: The Albanian concept of "honor" gets a grueling workout in Joshua Marston's THE FORGIVENESS OF BLOOD

Besa is a word -- as is it used in the new American-Albanian film THE FORGIVENESS OF BLOOD -- that TrustMovies has had no acquaintance with prior to now. According to the Wikipedia definition (found in the link embedded in the first word of this post), besa has most to do with the concept of honor -- at least, honor as understood by Albanians -- the keeping of it and the breaking of it. (The word also comes into play in the history of Albanian Muslims who saved their Jewish countrymen during the Holocaust.) "Honor," in all its nitwit cultural glory, is at the heart of the trouble that plagues our hero, Nik (played by newcomer Tristan Halilaj), a high-school student who is forced, along with his younger brother, into a kind of permanent "house arrest" due to the death of a member of a neighboring family in which Nik's father and uncle were involved.

Filmmaker Joshua Marston, shown at left, who earlier gave us Maria Full of Grace, appears to be a fellow most interested in how other cultures and their people live. "Maria" was set in Mexico (and later here in Jackson Heights, Queens, where I, too, live), while "Forgive-ness/Blood" takes place in Albania. In both films, the details of life and occupation -- how things work -- are at the forefront. We leave each movie with our understan-ding increased.

This does not mean that we much like what we see. In both cases, Marston has set his focus on a young person (in this case, Nik, above) whose life ought to stretch in front of him, full of opportunity. Instead, he is hamstrung by the culture, history and society around him, and kept under the foot of those more wealthy and powerful.

From the outset, as a truck drives over a road and large rocks are moved out of the way so the truck can progress, we learn that this land is now owned by a powerful family that refuses to give the right-of-use for that road, even though for decades previous it was used by everyone, as needed. In fact, Nik's family used to own the land that this road is on, and they allowed its use by all -- which makes the current situation even more intolerable.

But wait. Nik's father seems clearly the kind of guy spoiling for a fight yet not quite ready to take responsibility for his actions, post-fight. Whatever law enforcement exists in Albania, we don't see much of it here or understand how it works; instead, it appears that some code of honor reigns supreme and families are expected to abide by it, come what may. What comes is death. We don't see the actual murder or accident, only what precedes it, but this is enough to make pretty clear what has happened: two members of Nik's family have overcome one armed member of the other. (For all we know, Nik's dad and uncle may have been armed, as well.)

Under this honor code, the "slighted" family has the right to kill a male from the other family, and as Nik's dad has gone missing and his uncle is already in jail, this leaves Nik and his younger brother as possible next victims. Consequently they're confined to their house: No school, no leaving under any circumstance. What transpires from here on is equal parts unsettling and, it must be said, a bit boring, as Nik begins to go stir crazy (above), sneaks out at night, builds a ersatz "gym," and generally makes himself annoying. Well, he's at that hormonal age...

The family's employment seems to center around delivering bread, but his sister, above, is trying to make ends meet by also selling cigarettes (there's a fertile black market going on). Meanwhile, the nasty family resorts to everything from the harassment of sis to burning down the barn. The besa comes into play, when, according to what we see, Nik and his brother are suddenly given this besa, which apperars to function like a holiday of sorts from house arrest, allowing them to leave the house and return to school. Much is made of this but how it actually works and why remains a little sketchy. It all comes down to "honor" once again, and at this point in time, from what we know about how "honor" is practiced in Muslim countries -- you can kill your family member if she's been raped (Bliss), or make her a prisoner if you think she's behaving badly (When We Leave), perhaps it's time to find another word for this "honor" thing -- which in the Muslim culture to often seems more like simple-minded masculine entitlement -- with Allah's blessing, of course.

The Forgiveness of Blood proves alternately suspenseful and irritating, moving and then slow-moving (there were times I could have used a besa from the film itself), and finally sad and maybe just a little hopeful: Wherever Nik ends up, it's gotta be better than here. The movie, distributed by Sundance Selects, opens this Friday, February 24, in New York City (at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and Landmark's Sunshine Cinema) and in the Los Angeles area (at the Landmark NuArt, where Mr. Marston will be making an in-person appearance on Friday, 2/24; on March 2 it expands to the Laemmle's Monica 4-Plex and Pasadena Playhouse 7).  It will make its way to other theaters soon, as well. Click here to view some of these.

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