(director/writer: Joshua Marston; screenwriter: Andamion Murataj; cinematographer: Rob Hardy; editor: Malcolm Jamieson; music: Jacobo Lieberman/Leonardo Heiblum; cast: Tristan Halilaj (Nik), Sindi Laçej (Rudina), Refet Abazi (Mark), Zana Hasaj (Bardha), Erjon Mani (Tom), Luan Jaha (Zef), Ilire Vinca Celaj (Drita), Cun Lajci (Ded), Veton Osmani (Sokol), Esmeralda Gjonlulaj (Bora), Elsajed Tallalli(Dren), Xhevdet Shima (Mr. Skendaj, teacher), Servete Haxhija (Mara), Hasan Pema (Gjin Basha), Zefir ‘Bep’ Bushati (Valmir); Runtime: 109; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Gwen Bialic/Andamion Murataj; The Criterion Collection; 2011-USA-in Albanian with English subtitles)

“The fascinating pic is filled with eye-pleasing location shots.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

American director Joshua Marston’ follow-up to his acclaimed debut film of 2004 “Maria Full of Grace” is co-written with Andamion Murataj, and is set in the contemporary countryside of northern Albania. In the democratic Albania, the locals still settle inter-familial blood feuds by ancient customs. A fictional story is told about a family trapped by traditional laws passed on from the 15th century, known as the Kanun, that says when a killing takes place, it’s considered an offense against the victim’s entire extended family and must be paid back with ‘blood for blood.’ If that can’t be, then any male member of the offending family is a target if caught outside the sanctuary of his home.

The film centers around the family of the bread delivery man patriarch Mark (Refet Abazi), his working wife (Cun Lajci), his oldest teenage son Nik (Tristan Halilaj), his teenage daughter Rudina (Sindi Laçej), and his two youngsters Bora and Dren (Esmeralda Gjonlulaj & Elsajed Tallalli). There’s a long-standing feud over the land with Mark’s violent neighbor Sokol (Veton Osmani). The land was once owned by Mark’s grandfather, but part of it was transferred by the government to his neighbor Sokol. When Sokol closes off the road and refuses to allow Mark to take his horse and cart to town, there are bitter words exchanged. An unarmed Mark later returns with his brother Zef (Luan Jaha) to confront Sokol, who jumps them with a knife but is disarmed and knifed to death by Zef while Mark holds down Sokol. Mark flees and goes into hiding, not trusting the police to give him a fair chance. Sokol’s cousin is the local cop. Meanwhile Zef is given an 18 year sentence and the males in Mark’s house are ordered to be housebound by order of the traditional Kanun imposed by the suffering family who do not feel civil law gave them enough justice. This means the studious Rudina has to drop-out of school and drive the delivery cart. A bored Nik stays home and builds a gym. The once carefree teen gets frustrated and starts selfishly thinking only of his plight, as he tries to communicate with his would-be pretty girlfriend Bardha (Zana Hasaj) but she rarely responds. Nik starts to crack-up learning his isolation has no time frame to end and depends on being settled by the two warring families or by a paid mediator.

It’s a powerful film, with a premise that clearly shows how the cycle of violence goes on from generation to generation. It indicts the Old World culture for hampering the modern world with customs that have long been outdated and are too cruelly primitive to be retained. It depicts the Old World living alongside the modern world, with horse carts traveling on the same roads with cars and of cell phones and computer internet connections being universal. But since the people find the government corrupt they believe they can only get justice from following the old ways, and so the modern legal system is often bypassed.

The pointed history lesson and the coming-of-age stories for the two modern teens, whose life is curtailed by the blood feud, are well told. The film is built around Nik’s struggle and the psychological toll the blood feud is having on him. It’s through Nik’s eyes that we see things unfold. It ends in the unpleasant way it has to end, and depicts how this religiously infused patriarchal society might be difficult for the modern males but for the women it leaves them as second-class citizens. The fascinating pic is filled with eye-pleasing location shots, a relevant story that gets inside the main character’s heads, the natural acting by the non-professional cast is fluid and it does justice in catching the details and flavor of living with a tribal siege-like mentality of settling things in a world that is rapidly changing, even in this remote part, to one that is tech smart.