Film Review: The Forgiven

Enemies try to forge a truce in post-apartheid South Africa in this old-fashioned and long-winded docudrama.
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A couple of decades ago, The Forgiven would have been a brave movie. Coming out today, it’s merely sincere.

Not that sincerity should be taken for granted. When multiplexes are crowded with shiny commercial products and art houses often preoccupied with stubborn self-indulgence, a film which simply wants to make a few earnest points shouldn’t be undervalued.

But this film’s good intentions are too little, and too late.

Set in mid-’90s South Africa, the script by Michael Ashton and director Roland Joffé—based on Ashton’s play The Archbishop and the Antichrist—tells the tale of that country’s ambitious Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Apartheid has been dismantled, elections have been held, and Nelson Mandela elected president of a truly new nation. Now the really difficult work begins: moving forward, with repentance and without revenge.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, long a voice for peaceful social change, is the Commission’s leader and moral center. He soon finds that this work only gives rise to new battles—including a very personal war of wills after he journeys to a penitentiary to meet Piet Blomfeld, a white racist and former death-squad leader who suddenly wants to tell his gory story in all its horrifying details.

But is it absolution that Blomfeld wants? Or merely a chance to brag?

Their dialogues form the somewhat stagy core of the movie, as Forest Whitaker’s Tutu and Eric Bana’s Blomfeld meet across a scarred wooden table and debate, justify, implore and curse. It’s not necessarily a bad device, and popular among dramatists of historical fiction; films from The Queen to The Journey have provided us with imagined conversations between the two living sides of a question, each one convinced of his or her own moral stance.

And both actors are fine. Whitaker, who can sometimes make very tasty snacks of the scenery, is strong-willed but subdued, and does an excellent job of catching Tutu’s lilting voice and gentle dignity. Bana sounds a little too recognizably Australian at times, but his Blomfeld is fierce, and in some ways reminiscent of the star’s breakthrough film role in Chopper.

Yet the script—the usual hodgepodge of composite characters, altered timelines and bits of fact—never invents a plausible psychology for Blomfeld, who’s required to go through several dramatic changes. It fails to make the conversations between the two men particularly striking, or eloquent, trying to coast by on a few quotes from Milton (always the screenwriter’s laziest go-to trope for self-destructive villains). And yet when it does move outside those prison walls—and the original play—the pace slackens even further.

Cinematographer William Wages captures a few beautiful images, and a sense of the continent’s sharp-edged sunlight (the movie was filmed on location in South Africa).  Zethu Mashika’s music is suitably mournful and, as one grief-shattered mother, Thandi Makhubele provides the movie with its most moving scenes, particularly in a climactic court showdown. Yet the film never rises above earnestness; it never provides a singular reason to watch.

One can imagine the project’s attraction to Roland Joffé. Earlier in his film career, Joffé was known for politically minded, issue-oriented, international dramas like The Killing Fields and The Mission. Sometimes the work seemed more designed to spur op-ed pieces than intrigue audiences, but the movies were thoughtful and tasteful. Then came a dark period, culminating—bizarrely—in the torture-porn atrocity Captivity in 2007. There Be Dragons, a Spanish Civil War story and an attempt to return to his usual material, failed to gain much traction in 2011.

That Joffé is back again and still trying hard to appeal to audiences with sincere, socially engaged cinema may be praiseworthy; again, certainly there are worse things than being well-intentioned. But we need more than good intentions now. And this film would have meant much more a couple of decades ago.

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