In 2004, American writer-director Joshua Marston’s astonishing debut, “Maria Full of Grace,” a largely Spanish-language story about Colombian drug mules, put him on the cinematic map. His long-awaited sophomore effort, “The Forgiveness of Blood,” is not quite as brutal despite its title, but the underlying threat of violence pervades the picture. Marston got the idea for the film after reading a newspaper article about a teenager caught up in a blood feud in modern Albania, where the director spent a month conducting research.
Marston and Albanian-born filmmaker Andamion Murataj (also co-producer and casting director) co-wrote the screenplay, which won the Silver Bear for best script at the Berlin International Film Festival. Their script is brought to life by the authentic performances that the director commands from a non-professional cast recruited from the mountains of northern Albania. Marston’s naturalistic direction helps make the film’s world feel very real to the audience despite an intrinsically slow middle act.
In an opening scene, two groups of men banter at each other in a café. Sokol (Veton Osmani) ominously quips, “Sometimes the long road is shorter … and safe.” It turns out the state has granted Sokol land formerly owned by the grandfather of Mark (Refet Abazi). Later, during his bread delivery route on a horse and cart, Mark finds Sokol has blocked off his shortcut. Angry, Mark goes home, gets his brother Zef (Luan Jaha) and revisits Sokol — an encounter that results in Sokol’s death and repercussions for Mark’s entire family.
While Mark goes into hiding, Zef is arrested. According to the Kanun, a 15th-century legal code still followed in Albania, any male member of Mark’s family is subject to a revenge killing by Sokol’s family, an eye-for-an-eye form of justice. Nik (Tristan Halilaj), Mark’s 17-year-old son, is forced to stay inside the family’s house, curtailing his budding relationship with his pretty classmate Bardha (Zana Hasaj) and dreams of starting an Internet café. To be safe, his younger brother Dren also remains at home, despite technically being too young to be targeted according to the Kanun. With all the family’s males out of commission, Nik’s younger teenage sister Rudina (Sindi Laçej), an A student, has to leave school to take over the family business delivering bread.
The Kanun permits the negotiation of a mediated settlement between the families, a possibility Sokol’s family won’t discuss until Mark is in custody. Stir-crazy Nik urges his father to turn himself in, which Mark resists because Sokol’s cousin is a police officer. The film’s middle section effectively depicts the family’s growing tension and claustrophobia while living in a prison partly of their own making.
The Forgiveness of Blood
(Falja e Gjakut)
(Albanian with subtitles; 109 min.)
Landmark’s E Street Cinema
Opens Fri., March 9
3.5 out of 5 stars
“Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” American director-producer David Gelb’s impressive feature film debut, succeeds as a straightforward biography of Jiro Ono, an 85-year-old Japanese man regarded by many as the world’s best sushi chef. Gelb’s restrained direction is worthy of his Japanese subject. Like Jiro’s sushi, the documentary’s minimalist style appears clean and simple, which gets the job done very well.
Much of the content consists of informative interviews with food writer Masuhiro Yamamoto, Jiro, his sons, staff and vendors. Lingering, mouthwatering shots of the sushi place the film in the category of food porn. The beautiful imagery is nicely complemented by a classical score, including modern pieces by Philip Glass and Max Richter. The meditative result, which premiered at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival, is an inspiring portrait of a man whose dedication to his work has led to unmatched professional accomplishment but palpable, if understated, family tensions.
Jiro owns Sukiyabashi Jiro, the first sushi-only restaurant awarded the coveted top three stars by the prestigious Michelin guide, an honor held by only about 80 restaurants worldwide. His tiny 10-seat restaurant is surprisingly situated in the basement of a Tokyo subway station. Patrons must wait at least a month to get a reservation for a 15- to 30-minute meal that costs 30,000 yen (about $375), only to get infamously curt service from Jiro, who doesn’t tolerate any special requests.
Food writer Yamamoto wonders, rhetorically, how Jiro’s sushi can be so simple yet so delicious. Its surface simplicity belies the complexity behind Jiro’s sushi-making process. His store buys ingredients only from specialists who are the very best in their field: fish, rice, seaweed, soy sauce, wasabi, etc. An apprenticeship under Jiro, a Shokunin (traditional sushi master), takes 10 years to complete. Jiro stresses the importance of every detail, requiring much practice to perfect, which he personally inspects before every meal. As a workaholic, “Jiro dislikes holidays. They are too long for him,” says Yamamoto.
Jiro’s young sons saw so little of their father that when he slept in one Sunday, his younger son Takashi asked his mother, “Who’s the strange man sleeping here?” During his rough childhood, Jiro was abandoned by his father. Despite his absence from home, Jiro has certainly loved and cared for his own sons, who treat him with proper filial respect and a modicum of fear. Younger brother Takashi has been able to partially escape his father’s orbit by heading the family company’s second sushi restaurant in another part of Tokyo. It’s joked that customers say they can get the same quality sushi at Takashi’s restaurant without being intimidated by Jiro.
Jiro says, “Although I’m 85 years old, I don’t feel like retiring yet.” As the eldest son, Yoshikazu is expected to succeed his father, for whom he’s still working at age 50. Yoshikazu is conscious of the difficulty of his position in Jiro’s large shadow, lamenting that people wouldn’t say his sushi is as good as Jiro’s until it is actually twice as good. Yet Yamamoto notes that it was Yoshikazu who actually made the sushi for Michelin’s inspectors that earned his father’s restaurant three stars.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
(Japanese with subtitles; 81 min.)
Landmark’s E Street Cinema
Opens Fri., March 23
4 out of 5 stars
Scottish actress Tilda Swinton (“Michael Clayton,” “Burn After Reading,” “I Am Love”) delivers another haunting performance as a mother at her wits’ end in Scottish writer-director Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” Ramsay’s long-awaited third film (after 2002’s “Morvern Callar” and 1999’s “Ratcatcher”), set in New York City and its suburbs, was adroitly adapted from Lionel Shriver’s highly regarded best-selling novel by Ramsay and co-writer Rory Stewart Kinnear.
The chronologically fragmented story, artfully depicting the frazzled state of mind of Swinton’s lead character, gives Ramsay a chance to show off her directorial talents with a mesmerizing visual montage.
In a modest New York suburb, Eva Khatchadourian (Swinton) lives what seems to be a tormented life, looking frazzled and unhealthily skinny. She has to scrub red paint off her weathered cottage. A strange woman punches her in a parking lot, to which she doesn’t respond or accept help. She willingly takes home eggs cracked by strangers at the supermarket, later picking up shells out of her omelet. When two young men in suits carrying briefcases appear at her door, she’s understandably alarmed before they ask her what she knows about the afterlife.
She laughs, saying, “I’m going straight to hell. Eternal damnation, the whole thing.” She’s serious. Apparently, her teenage son Kevin (Ezra Miller of “Afterschool,” “City Island”) has committed some unspeakable crime at his high school. She blames herself, at least in large part, so she willingly accepts her life suffering as a form of penance. Perhaps if she’d been a better mother, a different outcome might have resulted.
Flashbacks reveal that Eva is an accomplished travel writer who’s seen much of the world, as illustrated by a scene from the La Tomatina festival in Valencia, Spain, where the thrown tomatoes look disturbingly like blood. In Manhattan, she finds herself unexpectedly pregnant by Franklin (John C. Reilly of “Carnage,” “Chicago”). Her colicky baby Kevin (Rocky Duer) cries so much that she takes him into the street to be drowned out by traffic. She exclaims, “Before you were born, Mommy used to be happy! Now Mommy wakes up every day and wishes she were in France!”
As a 6- to 8-year old, Kevin (Jasper Newell) has turned into a little demon who still wears a diaper and lacks interest in nearly everything, except for a bow and arrow set. He’s conniving enough to show affection to his father, who insists that Kevin is just being a boy who needs space to run around, prompting a move to the suburbs. Kevin taunts his mother, frustrating her so much that she throws him up against the wall one day, breaking her arm. Eve and Franklin also have a younger daughter, Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich), whose sweetness only contrasts with Kevin’s increasing creepiness as a teenager.
We Need to Talk About Kevin
(English; 112 min.; scope)
Opens Fri., March 2
4.5 out of 5 stars
Francophonie Cultural Festival
The Francophonie Cultural Festival’s (March 8-April 4) “films from around the world” showcase opens with Belgian directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s “The Kid with a Bike” (Thu., March 8, 7 p.m.) at the Letelier Theatre. Switzerland’s multi-director anthology, “Blame it on Rousseau!” (Mon., March 12, 7 p.m.), celebrates the philosopher’s 300th birthday at the Embassy of Switzerland. The Smithsonian’s Ripley Center shows Laurent Salgues’s “Dreams of Dust” (Wed., March 14, 7 p.m.) and Claire Andrade-Watkins’s “Some Kind of Funny Porto Rican: A Cape Verdean American Story” (Wed., March 28, 7 p.m.) set in Burkina Faso. The Avalon Theatre screens Swiss comic book artist Zep’s directorial debut feature, “Titeuf, the Film” (Sat., March 17, 10 a.m.) and Austrian director Marie Kreutzer’s “The Fatherless” (Wed., March 21, 7 p.m.).
American Film Institute (AFI) Silver Theatre
AFI series include the 10th annual New African Films Festival (March 8-13), co-presented by AFI, TransAfrica and afrikafé; “La Bohème” in “Opera in Cinema” (March 13, 17); “Ballet in Cinema” (March 11-25); “Dickens in the Cinema: A Bicentennial Retrospective” (through April 9); “Screen Valentines: Great Movie Romances” (through March 7); “Bigger Than Life: The Films of Nicholas Ray” (through April 12); “Gene Kelly Centennial Retrospective” (through April 5); and “Things to Come: The City Imagined on Film” (through April 5).
(301) 495-6700, www.afi.com/silver
National Gallery of Art
“Robert Bresson” (March 3-April 1) is a complete retrospective of all existing films by the late French auteur (1901-99), known for his minimalist productions. The series is organized by the Cinemathèque Ontario with assistance from the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, the Institut français, and Paramount.
Art films and events include: Steve Elkins’s documentary about the Kronos Quartet, titled “The Reach of Resonance” (March 15-16, 12:30 p.m.); Ghana-born, British film and installation artist John Akomfrah’s “The Nine Muses” (Sat., March 17, 2 p.m.); and Lotte Stoops’s documentary about Mozambique’s monument to Portuguese colonialism turned commune, “Grande Hotel” (Sat., March 24, 4 p.m.).
(202) 842-6799, www.nga.gov/programs/film
Freer Gallery of Art
In partnership with the AFI Silver Theatre, “Korean Film Festival DC 2012: The Art of the Moving Image from Korea” (March 11-April 26) opens at the Freer with Lee Jae-young’s mature comedy “Foxy Festival” (Sun., March 11, 2 p.m.)
In collaboration with the Korean Film Festival DC 2012, “Moving Perspectives” (March 15-April 26) showcases contemporary Korean video art in the Freer’s Meyer Auditorium. Minouk Lim’s “SOS Adoptive Dissensus” (2009) and “Firecliff 2_Seoul” (2011) are installed March 15 to 17. (Through March 18, her work can also be seen in the Arthur M. Sackler’s pavilion exhibit, “Perspectives: Minouk Lim.” Hyunjhin Baik’s “The End” (2009) runs March 29 to 31.
(202) 357-2700, www.asia.si.edu/events/films.asp
About the Author
Ky N. Nguyen is the film reviewer of The Washington Diplomat.