Mark Reviews Movies

The Forgiven


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Roland Joffé

Cast: Forest Whitaker, Eric Bana, Jeff Gum, Robert Gough, Debbie Sherman, Thandi Makhubele, Nandiphile Mbeshu, Zikhona Bali, Pamela Nomvete, Terry Norton

MPAA Rating: R (for disturbing/violent content, and language throughout including some sexual references)

Running Time: 1:55

Release Date: 3/9/18 (limited)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 8, 2018

Forgiveness is not easy, and within the context of the story of The Forgiven, it seems nearly impossible. The film follows Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the early days of serving as the chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa, following the abolition of apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela. This was a bold step on Mandela's part, offering the possibility of amnesty to people who committed heinous crimes in the name of politics in the past, hoping that such a move would help to unite a country that was steeped in anger and resentment. That, by most accounts, it appeared to work is something of a miracle.

The film, set in 1996, follows Tutu, played by Forest Whitaker (wearing a prosthetic nose that becomes less distracting as the strength of his performance becomes clear), as he finds himself confronting a man who seems unwilling to repent for his crimes and unworthy of forgiveness. The bulk of the film cuts between the two men's stories, as Tutu maneuvers the difficult politics of the TRC's mission and, in prison, the criminal faces his past, as well as the often violent politics of the incarcerated.

It's when the two men come together, in a series of intense and uncomfortable dialogues, that the film is most effective. Here, we're forced to confront the face and mind of Piet Blomfeld (Eric Bana), a fictional creation based—according to the film's coda—on multiple sources of real-life individuals who went through the TRC's process.

He's an admitted murderer who goes into graphic detail about his crimes—not only what he did but also how it made him feel. There's no sign of remorse in his words or on his face as he recounts these deeds. Indeed, he speaks of the thrill of killing, and the extent of his crimes is only kept a secret in order to protect the other men who participated in them. He's a racist, too, calling the archbishop by the local racial epithet on multiple occasions, even after Tutu politely and, later, overly requests that he stop. In the wide scheme of things, Blomfeld's racism seems like a minor point, except that it seems to be the driving force of his crimes.

He is, of course, a representation of what happened in South Africa and the attitudes that helped to shape the country's decades-long policy, which turned the majority population into second-class citizens. One of the strengths of the film, co-written by Michael Ashton and director Roland Joffé, is that it doesn't sugarcoat Blomfeld. He is exactly as he presents himself—a violent, unapologetic murderer who used his racist politics as a justification for his actions. The screenplay does eventually provide a concise explanation for how those politics came to be—a racist father and childhood in a boarding school where, we have to assume, those attitudes were encouraged.

The film sees all of this—the hatred, the politics, the violence—as a cycle. That doesn't excuse any of it, but it does provide Tutu with his goal: to stop that cycle, despite what has happened in the past, here and now, hopefully for good. Blomfeld sees no end to that cycle. The walls of prison cell are decorated with the words "Never submit" and "Revenge."

These are two men who are primarily divided by their view of humanity. Blomfeld believes human beings inherently pursue power for themselves and those like them, able and willing and eager to use violence to achieve that power. Tutu believes that hatred and violence are an "aberration" of any given person's natural humanity.

The scenes between these men, staring at each other across a table in a barred room in the prison, work, not so much as intellectual debates (because anyone with a shred of decency will know that Blomfeld is wrong), but as a study of patience and the willingness to find some understanding with another human being—even a man as monstrous as Blomfeld. The screenplay may delve into Tutu's activities outside of the prison—overseeing testimony, arriving at the site of mass graves outside "hostels," speaking about the humiliation of the apartheid days—but the film's heart resides on the faithful man's side of the table during those difficult conservations. It's in facing evil, accepting that it exists, and hoping that, if you can't convince it to stop its ways, you can at least keep at it bay within yourself, serving as an example to others.

The rest of the film is not as subtle in its approach as those moments, but it is effective in detailing Tutu's crisis of faith, the remnants of racism within South Africa just waiting for an opportunity to emerge again, and, of course, the difficult struggle of finding the strength to forgive for a good beyond oneself. The last part comes through a subplot involving a mother, whose daughter disappeared three years prior during a clandestine government action known as "Operation Hacksaw." Blomfeld vaguely brings up his association with that action, leading him to become of key interest to Tutu and a target of a prison guard, who fears having his own actions revealed.

The results, though, are slightly more complex than a straightforward description of specific details might suggest. The Forgiven, for example, doesn't find any outright redemption for Blomfeld, although it suggests enough of a minor change for him to make some kind of difference. Its wrenching climactic moment, too, focuses on an ancillary character, who finds herself in the most difficult, but vital, of situations. The film has taken us through the difficult steps of how to process this scenario, and it convinces us that it is, as impossible as it may seem, possible.

Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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