Introducing the world premiere of Bloodlands at the FrightFest strand of the 2017 Glasgow Film Festival, writer/director Steven Kastrissios said that there had been an expectation for the follow up to his Australian set torture porn debut feature from which he has quite radically and defiantly departed with a supernatural family drama set filmed in rural Albania, its rugged beauty reflected in the hard lives of the clans who have toiled there for generations.
Patriarch Skender (Gëzim Rudi), the town butcher, is a traditionalist: “A man should keep busy so his brains don’t run empty,” he proclaims. “You see the rubbish your mother comes out with?” In fact Shpresa (Suela Bako) has offered to work but Skender is too proud to see his wife clean the houses of other people, though in fact the financial situation is even worse than she feared. “Another quiet month and we’re finished.”
It’s not the right time for daughter Iliriana (Alesia Xhemalaj) to announce her plan to leave for Italy; complicit in her intention, Shpresa had thought to introduce Skender to the idea gently rather than have it dropped on him over a family dinner. At least cousin Florian (Dritan Arbana) has good news – he has a landed a part in a play in the city and hopes to get paid for this one.
No such luck for Artan (Emiljano Palali), dreamer of the family who wanders the town with his camera, hoping for a glimpse of doctor’s daughter Lorena (Enxhi Cuku), a few minutes with her before she also leaves for university in the capital Tirana. No such luck for any of them, Skender’s temper provoked by the beggar children, scavenging for scraps behind the shop, sending them back empty handed and hungry to the mountain… to their matriarch, the shtriga.
First it’s the illness that comes over the family, thought to be food poisoning, the kiss of death for the reputation of a butcher, then the young man Skender sees in the town whom he recognises as having died in a blood feud years before, and as the shadow of night falls across the valley, down from the mountain they come.
Bloodlands is a modern film but tied to the history of the land which inspired it, shot entirely on location and driven by an ensemble cast largely unknown beyond the borders of their Eastern European fiefdom, but their unfamiliarity to a wider audience does not diminish their experience or talent, natural performances of conviction and quiet resignation which are driven through fear, anger then wrath: when first blood has been spilled, neither side will relinquish until it is over.
And it is a land which takes the blood willingly, a land with no horizon where the mountains surround the town and reach up to the rushing sky, no escape for anyone from what they have brought down on them in which the police have no jurisdiction and cannot help. Only a few hours’ drive from the modernity of the capital to which the children’s aspire, with nightfall comes the vengeance of the witch and the truth of their shared history.
The audience primed for the violence by a brutal and graphic early scene filmed in an actual slaughterhouse, what follows is remorseless rather than shocking but the parallels have been drawn by Kastrissios, the images already planted in the mind of the audience with no doubt left for what has taken place offscreen.
Once there were rules in the blood feud, Skender mourns, but no more. “It used to be shameful to shoot a woman. Now they’ll shoot you in your bed.” Having first allowed themselves to be put under siege, the retaliation is then taken to the hills even though it might reignite the feud, but Bako’s fierce matriarch is not a woman to be dismissed or denied.
With elements of folk and body horror and siege thriller, Kastrissios stated that the supernatural elements were only incorporated later in the development of the story and they remain underplayed, resulting in a film with somewhat too much preamble and a rushed finale. Not helped by a projection which the director advised was darker than intended, losing detail and atmosphere in crucial scenes, Bloodlands remains a beautifully crafted and acted film set in a land familiar in appearance yet unknown at its heart, the bloody mud of which being where horror can sink its roots deep.
Bloodlands has just been selected for the Brussels Fantastic Film Festival