Bloodlands is Albania’s first horror film and the second from Australian director Steven Kastrissios. Although to shoe horn it into the horror genre is too simplistic. It borrows elements from thrillers and includes themes of domestic, familial breakdowns. It is a real study of the Albanian psyche presenting a clash between young and old, between tradition and modernity in the form of an ancient ‘blood feud’. At times, Bloodlands is the victim of its own vagueness, mysticism tripping into genuine confusion. Yet, overall, it presents a beautiful but flawed Albania, in an exciting story.
The opening text offers the audience a little information on the ‘Kanun’, an ancient system of rural, Albanian justice. Retribution is key, with murder settled by murder. Village butcher Skender (Gëzim Rudi) is struggling financially, his shop deserted bar his children, who show even less interest in the shop than potential customers. His son, Artan (Emiljano Palali), dreams of becoming a photographer and pines after the beautiful Lorena (Enxhi Cuku) – he is eons away from the archetypal alpha-male of Skender. Meanwhile, daughter Iliriana (Alesia Xhemalaj) resembles her father more in her stubbornness, though she wishes to leave Albania in search of excitement and a better life. Even his trusting wife Shpresa (Suela Bako) is beginning to question him. Skender’s patriarchal grip is slowly beginning to slacken as the family face financial ruin.
After an altercation with members of a feral, forest-inhabiting ‘clan’, the entire family are plunged into a blood feud, a ‘Gjakmarrja’. Heading up the clan is the strange, mythic, matriarch Shtriga (Ilire Vinca Celaj), potentially a witch, potentially an old woman, the antithesis to Skender. “Blood is rewarded with blood” however, and the family must combat the supernatural clan in order to survive. Familial ties are frayed, and a showdown is inevitable.
The film’s strengths lie in its depiction of its characters and the Albanian setting. The horror offered by the clan is minimal, it is the way this plays on the relationships of the family which creates greater horror. Kastrissios manages to capture the overt war between modern Albania, through the phone and camera wielding children, versus the dirty, ancient traditions of the highland clan. The subtler war between Skender and these children demonstrates this divide clearer still. DOP Leandër Ljarja drains the colour from rural Albania, capturing the strikingly beautiful hills alongside the grimy poverty of village life in a dark mesmeric fashion. The cinematography serves to up the supernatural feeling when it often feels lacking.
Bloodlands falters a little in its portrayal of the supernatural. The intention surely was to keep it ambiguous and uncertain, but this enters into literal confusion at times. Often it is unclear whether what was happening on screen was real or not and it detracted a little from the story as a whole. One other thing that should be mentioned is a scene in an abattoir in which a sheep is slaughtered. This was done in controlled conditions, but it should be mentioned for any viewers who may find it offensive or discomforting.
This is a strong second feature from Kastrissios, capturing the beauty and occultism of Albania. Although Kastrissios is Australian, it feels like a real Albanian production that the cast and crew can be proud of, putting their country on the horror map.