Film Review: The Forgiven (2018) DIR. Roland Joffé
By Belle McIntyre
Based on the Michael Ashton play “The Archbishop and the Antichrist”, this extremely close-up depiction of events in post-apartheid South Africa, narrowly focuses on the intense interactions between Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Forrest Whittaker) and Piet Blomfeld (Eric Bana), a vicious white death squad leader. Blomfeld is serving a long sentence in the notorious Pollsmoor Prison. Somewhat unconvincingly, Blomfeld writes a letter to Tutu, who is heading the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to ask for an audience, hoping to reduce his sentence.
His letter has been carefully crafted with erudite references to Milton and Plato, in an effort to appeal to Tutu’s intellectual curiosity. The ploy works and Tutu comes to the prison in spite of warnings that the man is an unrepentantly evil psychopath. The chances of success for the man of God in the face of such implacable hatred and angry entitlement looks as unlikely as Jody Foster vs. Hannibal Lecter. The bulk of the film takes place at a table in prison with the two men facing each other and consists of close ups of each man as they engage in an intense tug of war with Blomfeld belittling and challenging Tutu’s patience and compassion. The contrast between the two men could not be more extreme. The effect on Tutu is a crisis of faith in the possibility of redemption or forgiveness. This static set-up reveals the theatrical origins of the work and one can imagine it as a powerful piece on a stage. It is less effective on the screen, I fear.
Non-prison scenes involve flashbacks to Blomfeld’s childhood which include a traumatic violent event when he was a young boy and a photograph of a young black boy of the same age, which he has carried with him for 30 years and could go some way toward explaining the trajectory of his life. We are also shown Tutu’s grapples with God, his wife and those on his staff who worry for his well-being. There are some truly nasty scenes of jailhouse abuse and violent cruelty.
There is an intensely emotional courtroom scene between the mother of a tortured and murdered girl who faces the officer who perpetrated and countenanced a harrowing act of violence and cruelty. When she refuses to surrender the memory of her daughter to the furtherance of more cruelty or revenge and offers him forgiveness, it is almost more than the man can bear. It is an extraordinary and powerful moment, and arguably the best scene in the film.
Eric Bana gives a chilling portrayal of his conflicted, twisted character, who is based on a composite of actual characters. Forrest Whittaker, by contrast, seems impossibly forbearing and compassionate and renders his character with grace and nuance. The post script of the film gives a glimmer of hope which is the future of South Africa.