We see events exclusively through the eyes of the two teenagers, and perhaps this is why the film is confusing; the ancient code which abruptly disrupts their lives is as alien to them as it is to us. It was only after viewing the Criterion edition's supplements and listening to Marston's commentary track that things began to make sense to me. These blood feuds apparently affect many lives in the country, resulting in people remaining confined to their homes for years, even decades, with some children born into such confinement and never knowing anything different until they emerge as adults. During the forty-five years of communist rule, all of this was suppressed (according to Marston, there was only one such event during that time), but since the end of communism, with a weak state, the ancient code has reasserted its hold, with families no longer relying on the police and courts to deal with conflicts.
But at the same time, the end of communism caused a surge out of backwardness with the influx of foreign technology and wealth. Cars, once rare, became common, existing side by side with horse-drawn carts like the one in the film. And kids born in the past two decades have grown up with computers, smart phones, video games and Facebook. What seems at times inexplicable in the film actually depicts the reality of life in Albania today. Armed with this information, a second viewing of The Forgiveness of Blood takes on a richness and depth not fully apparent on a first viewing. The tension between the sense of freedom and autonomy felt by the kids and the weight of an ancient social code which binds them only really comes into focus when the context is made clear.
Is this a failing? Marston set out to make a drama not a documentary, and yet the unfamiliarity of the setting almost demands some kind of background information for the viewer. In the making-of (with producer Paul Mezey giving a useful account of the film's genesis) and Marston's commentary track, it's made clear that the filmmaker immersed himself in the place and the culture, researching these blood feuds in great depth and creating the script by incorporating numerous details learned from actual people whose lives have been affected by them. But perhaps, so steeped in the material and determined to tell the story from within, rather than as an outside observer, he forgot how much he himself had to learn before any of this made sense to him and he just trusts that the viewer will be able to intuit what he had made so much effort to learn.