The Forgiveness of Blood
Directed by Joshua Marston
Opens February 24
Safe in Hell (1931)
Directed by William Wellman
February 21 at Film Forum’s Wellman Retrospective
Seven years after Maria Full of Grace, director Joshua Marston returns with a supercharged version of a tale as old as the hills: when hard-line traditions attack! Somewhere in modern-day rural Albania, one dad kills another dad in the course of a long-simmering feud, and, by the tribal code known as the Kanun of Lek Dukagjini, his oldest son becomes fair game too. The permanent temporary solution—indefinite house lockdown, pulling teenage Nik out of school—makes The Forgiveness of Blood something of a war or siege film, a microcosm of protracted Balkan conflicts, in determinedly domestic setting.
You can almost sense Marston’s excitement at the possibilities of the premise, which sends high school independence and texting into a collision with mustachioed old men affirming immovable decrees. (For a documentary look at the subject, Jennifer Baichwal’s upcoming Payback, ruddered by Margaret Atwood lectures, includes bewildering firsthand accounts of an Albanian blood feud.) As Nik (suitably gawky Tristan Halilaj) indefatigably stays in contact with a cute girl he had just been trying to date, it’s almost as if Marston has transplanted a more conventional coming-of-age into these pitiless circumstances. More appealing is the story of Nik’s younger sister, Rudina, herself a casualty of the blood feud’s upheaval since she must take on the father-in-hiding’s horse-and-cart bread route. Steeling herself, Rudina (excellent Sindi Laçej) proves herself able to hold the line in bargaining with skeptical men, but home life remains such that sniper fire might come in from the windows, with Dad making clandestine visits under cover of night to say hello. Part of the interest of the film is watching the fear and rage work its way through the family, bubbling to the surface after the older generation’s tacit acceptance faces the noise of Nik’s building coming-of-age disapproval.
Meanwhile, in the tropics... another, even clearer-eyed story of confinement on pain of death, from William Wellman, who gets a welcome 42-film retrospective at Film Forum. A standout in the series—which spans from Roxie Hart (1921, with Ginger Rogers and Adolphe Menjou) and inaugural Oscar-winner Wings to Tab Hunter in Lafayette Escradille (1958), and features my long-hoped-for hobo double feature Wild Boys of the Road and Heroes for Sale as well as classics and rarities cheek by jowl—is twisted pre-Code heart-breaker Safe in Hell. Dorothy Mackaill stars as a New Orleans call girl who must flee to a far-off island after bashing the wrong gangster, thereby leaving her lover behind. The action takes place in one of those “exotic” expat locales that actually maybe come close in expressing a soul seediness—here indelibly represented by a panel of horny criminals and unsavories who line up their chairs all in a row to leer at the new arrival emerging from her room. Wellman’s treatment of ex-Broadway actress Maude Fulton’s script is scrappy, funny, and sad by turns (and isn’t it that volatile, hard-to-classify mix that’s part of the Code’s taboo?) and will knock you flat.