It’s obvious now, with American filmmaker Joshua Marston’s second feature — after 2004’s extraordinarily clear-eyed Maria Full of Grace — that he is interested in a sort of anthropological storytelling unlike anything we’re seeing onscreen these days. Maybe we’ve never seen anything like what he’s trying to do, which is to present characters and cultures alien to his audiences’ eyes in ways that render them instantly and easily recognizable and sympathetic. Here, he gives us the tale of a blood feud between two Albanian families that, as required by an ancient code that continues to sit alongside modern law, sees an entire family punished when its head, father and husband Mark (Refet Abazi) is accused of a terrible crime. With Mark on the run and in hiding, the rest of his family is under virtual house arrest. Eldest son Nik (Tristan Halilaj), a high-school senior, is unable to go to school and is watching his dreams of opening an Internet cafe after he graduates evaporate: he could be sequestered for years under threat of death if he steps out of the family house. Teen daughter Rudina (Sindi Lacej) must leave school and take up Mark’s work — delivering bread and other sundries around their village (in a horse-drawn cart, no less!) — in order to support the family, threatening her dreams of attending university. It’s a startling story of modern life clashing with stifling tradition, and a particular frustration for youngsters used to texting their friends and updating their statuses on Facebook. And it packs a potent punch for us, for Marston and his coscreenwriter Andamion Murataj do not frontload the film with any explanation of the 15th-century code known as the Kanun that rules their situation: we simply have no basis for any expectations of how this may resolve itself, which creates a unique sense of suspense. Based on extensive interviews with families living in Kanun-mandated isolation and shot with local actors — Halilaj and Lacej are untrained amateurs who give moving and appealing performances — in Albania, this is an unexpected and compelling look at a reality that most of us will have had no idea exists in the 21st century.
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