Directed by Joshua Marston. Written by Marston and Andamion Murataj. Starring Tristan Halilaj, Sindi Lacej, Refet Abazi, Zana Hasaj. Running time: 109 minutes. Not rated.
Rural Albania, at least as presented in Joshua Marston's quietly intense drama, does not appear to be a very inviting place. Oh, sure: The land itself, rambling plains and golden fields set between gently rambling green mountains, is a lovely sight, but it's a place where life's endless little indignities are especially harsh. It's a place where the past and future rest uncomfortably closely, slowly grinding each other down. Gruff family man Mark (Refet Abazi) scrapes out a living in likely the same way his forefathers did a century ago; delivering bread with a single horse-drawn cart. His daily route involves a shortcut through farmland that once belonged to his family, but is now owned by rivals, who are none too happy with the trespassing. Clearly there are long-simmering tribal, religious or personal reasons fueling this feud, but the details remain vague. Offscreen, there's a fight, a man dies, and Mark goes into hiding to avoid retribution. As the village elders dither over arcane laws and customs of conflict resolution, the family's forced to muddle on, with most of the burden falling on Mark's teenage children, son Nik (Tristan Halilaj) and daughter Rudina (Sindi Laçej). Like any regular high school kids, they're more interested in texting, new jeans and hanging out with their friends than they are with duty, honor or ancient blood feuds, but they have little choice in the matter. There is now a large target on Nik's back, and Rudina has to take up the delivery route, and haggle with black market dealers for cigarettes and other goods to keep everyone afloat. Neither sibling is ready for, or wants part of, this adult world — they each have dreams of some better, distant horizons.
Director Joshua Marston won heaps of praise for his debut feature, Maria Full of Grace, and his sophomore effort shows a similar intelligence and affinity for an alien landscape, and for decent people pushed into extraordinary circumstances by poverty and traditions beyond their understanding. What's lacking here is the churning urgency that made the drug-smuggling drama of Maria so compelling; the danger is more ephemeral here, and the plot is less dynamic. Halilaj is a solid young actor, though too often left to stare off into the distance, and through long, silent passages, we're left to wonder what's in his head. In the end, when Nik finally shakes his funk and displays enormous, foolish courage, it's gratifying, though his true feelings, like so much of these people's lives, and the homeland they're rooted in, is unknowable.
Opens Friday, March 23, at the Landmark Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
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