Stars: Gëzim Rudi, Suela Bako, Emiljano Palali, Alesia Xhemalaj, Enxhi Cuku, Florist Bajgora, Fioralba Kryemadhi, Ilire Vinca, Rina Narazini Sojli and Tan Kazazi, Edvin Mustafa, Andi Begolli, Ermal Sadiku and Dritan Arbana.
Writer/Director: Steven Kastrissios.
‘Blood is rewarded with blood’, recites a character at the midway point of Steven Kastrissios’ Bloodlands, and there could be no truer description of the Australian auteur’s sophomore feature. Although lighter on the raw brutality of his 2008 debut The Horseman, this moody, menacing work revisits the themes of familial ties and above-the-law vengeance, while introducing a convincing supernatural component drawing upon centuries-old Eastern European mythology.
Kastrissios’ story is based upon the self-imposed state of law and order known as ‘kanun’ and the subsequent blood feud culture called ‘gjakmarrja’, an eye-for-eye justice system that has been passed down through Albanian generations for over 2000 years; since the collapse of communist rule, the ‘kanun’ has re-established itself, with close to 3,000 families in regional Albania living under the threat of blood feud retribution. Bloodland’s multi-layered narrative traps its protagonists in this world of insurmountable conflict, in which the home of small-town butcher Skender (Gëzim Rudi) becomes embroiled with a dirt-poor clan of woodland dwellers, who serve their immortal matriarch, a witch known in local lore as the ‘Shtriga’ (conjured to dark life by a terrific Ilire Vinca).
Yet the truest drama emerges from within the family home, where kitchen-sink conflict of a more character-driven nature points to Kastrissios’ skill at subverting and enhancing his genre setting. The patriarchal rule of Skender has begun to fracture; his tolerant wife Shpresa (Suela Bako) is covertly helping their daughter Iliriana (Alesia Xhemalaj) plan a new life abroad, while son Artan (Emiljano Palali), dreaming of a career as a photographer far from the family business, pines for the unattainable Lorena (Enxhi Cuku). Only when the Shtriga and her dark magic enter their nightmares do the family find the unifying strength of their bloodline. To the productions credit, the lingering message is one of hope for future Albanians, in which the archaic rituals of the past are cast aside by a new generation eager for change.
The visuals meld hard-to-decipher Euro-arty moments (a levitating chunk of meat that holds its own mystical properties, apparently) with stunning landscape imagery and glimpses of ‘homestead life’ that recall the great American western. DOP Leandër Ljarja, in his feature film debut, captures the bleak yet beautiful countryside in steely greys and blues, juxtaposing overflowing garbage bins and stray dogs with stunning sunsets and hillside contours. Though easier on his human cast than in his past film, Kastrissios captures some rural truths with tough scenes of abattoir life, so animal lovers be warned (all shot under controlled, real-world conditions, the end credits assure us).
A compelling, polished and intelligent film, Bloodlands is the first co-production between Australia and Albania, and the region’s first venture into the horror format. A passion project for the director and his producer, Sydney-based Albanian Dritan Arbana, the long-gestating work emerges triumphantly from an extended post-production period. Exhibiting a grasp of nuanced character dynamics, rich atmosphere and technical skill that places him amongst the top tier of Australia’s new directing talents, Kastrissios has delivered an ambitiously unique horror/drama hybrid primed for global festival exposure.