The Forgiven

2018-10-05 08:04
Forest Whitaker in a scene from The Forgiven.


When Archbishop Desmond Tutu is appointed to head a nationwide investigation, he’s summoned to a maximum-security prison by a notorious murderer seeking clemency. Inside the brutal prison walls, Tutu is drawn into a dangerous, life-changing battle with the cunning criminal.


While The Forgiven is a wholly South African story based on a fictional play with very real lived experiences of the aftermath of Apartheid, this is not a South African film, and it should have been.

There’s a South African cast, but the two Hollywood leads’ dominance takes away that local flavour, and while Academy Award-winning director Roland Joffé was at the helm, the film made the audience feel like their watching this sensitive South African subject as outsiders, and this might alienate any South African actually watching it. Despite these issues, its powerful writing will bring you to tears as it invokes the raw emotion of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) days and reminds you of the horror of the Apartheid system.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Forest Whitaker) has been tasked with running the TRC, and becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to the daughter of a grieving mother (Thandi Makhubele). Meanwhile, he gets a letter from a notorious and brutal apartheid officer in jail, Piet Blomfeld (Eric Bana), asking for amnesty but more set on rattling the Arch’s faith in humanity.

It’s important to note that the story is based on the fictional play The Archbishop and the Antichrist, with Blomfeld being a wholly made-up character. This however does not take away from the authenticity of the story, as he is an amalgamation of a few convicted apartheid officers, and the TRC inquest into the missing daughter is also a composite of many of the real TRC cases. All of this would have been fine, if not for the one real-life character being played so unconvincingly.

It feels like Whitaker was chosen to play one of South Africa’s most beloved icons just because he’s a big Hollywood name that played a South African before (Zulu). As a South African you’re going to see the flaws quickly. He doesn’t capture the joviality of the big Arch, and his mannerisms are far removed from the real man. His way of speaking was also really painful to listen to, and was made worse by the fact that he had a few beautifully written speeches and monologues that could have been said so much better if a South African played Tutu.

The one surprise though was Bana - to me his acting talent was forever marred by that atrocious Hulk movie. But as a psychotic killer that is also acquainted with classic literature, Bana shines. He’s played villains before, but in The Forgiven he was absolutely menacing with a side dish of evil cleverness, and luckily the filmmakers never make you feel real sympathy for someone so awful, despite flashbacks to his traumatic childhood. He painfully outplayed Whitaker in their scenes together, and the on-screen Tutu also lost out to Makhubele, who plays the grieving mother Mrs Morobe.

Her scene in the TRC court is the standout scene in the whole film, encapsulating the hurt and scars left by the ruthless apartheid regime, and her pain will flow from the screen into your heart. She is the main reason to see this film, a reminder of how far we’ve gotten and how far we still need to go to heal these wounds.

While there are many problems with The Forgiven and will irk many South Africans, it’s still a worthwhile watch just as a reminder about our history, and that these wounds are still festering today. The TRC was a powerful tool to help our country move towards the future, but the director’s outsider status placed it outside of the context of what South Africa’s reality today, and the hand of a local would have better told a powerful story told through our own voices. 

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