Siblings Rudina and Nik have a pretty normal life. Rudina is an A-student in high-school and Nik has just fallen in love with a fellow student. Their father runs a bread delivery service and uses a short cut through a neighbour's ground. The ground had actually belonged to Rudina's and Nik's family once. One day the conflict escalates and the neighbour gets killed by Rudina's and Nik's father and their uncle.
SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: This Albanian-set drama directed and co-written by Joshua Marston is an intriguing mix of themes, straddling a troubled father-son relationship, a coming-of-age story, a blood feud and a cultural clash between ancient traditions and modern mores.
It’s an intelligent, engaging and well-crafted second effort from the American Marston following his 2004 debut Maria Full of Grace, a searing saga set in the world of Colombian drug mules. This is a gentler tale, but infused with considerable tension, anger and outbursts of violence.
The screenplay, a collaboration between Marston and Albanian–born filmmaker Andamion Murataj, won the Silver Bear for best script at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival.
Marston got the idea after reading a newspaper story about a teenage boy caught up in Albanian blood feuds and spent a month in the country interviewing the victims and others affected by such potentially deadly disputes.
Set in a poor rural area, the film quickly establishes the bad blood between two families over a patch of land. The land had been owned by the grandfather of Mark (Refet Abazi), who makes a meagre living delivering bread by horse and cart.
The State had awarded part of it to a man named Sokol (Veton Osmani). The turf war between the two escalates when the hot-tempered Sokol blocks the path to Mark’s house, leading to a fight (unseen) with Mark and his brother Zef (Luan Jaha) in which Sokol is killed. The cops arrest Zef and Mark flees, putting near-intolerable pressures on his 17-year-old son Nik (Tristan Halilaj) and 15-year-old daughter Rudina (Sindi Lacej).
According to a set of 15th Century Albanian laws known as the Kanun which mandate an eye-for-an-eye 'justice," Nik and his younger brother Dren must stay indoors: if they stray outside both are liable to be killed to avenge Sokol’s death. Forced to quit school, Rudina takes over her father’s delivery route and flourishes, to the chagrin of a business rival.
The middle section drags slightly, an inevitable consequence of Nik being under virtual house arrest, although he sneaks out to see Bardha (Zana Hasaj), the classmate he fancies.
Sparks fly when Mark briefly comes home and protests his innocence, leading to a confrontation with Nik, who wants him to surrender, and dissent between Nik and his sister.
At the film’s centre is the clash between ancient customs and laws and the freedoms and lifestyles pursued by the young generation with their video games, cell phones and texting. The resolution of the feud is expertly staged.
The acting by the neophytes is terrific as Hallilaj portrays Nik as a fun-loving, impetuous teenager who suddenly has to accept a heavy responsibility, while Lacej is determined, plucky and resourceful as Rudina.
Veteran film and stage actor Abazi has an imposing, intense presence as their father, who’s torn between loyalty to his family and his understandable desire to survive.
The performances from some of the supporting cast, presumably amateurs, is patchy, not surprising in a country with a tiny film industry, and Mark’s wife is an underwritten character.
It’s an illuminating glimpse into the cultural conflicts and rivalries in a rarely seen country and a tribute to Marston’s research and storytelling skills in league with Murataj, a cinematographer-turned-screenwriter, that it feels utterly authentic.