The Forgiven, directed by Roland Joffe and based on the Michael Ashton novel The Archbishop and the Antichrist, stars Academy Award winning actor Forest Whitaker in the role of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. By Ricardo A. Hazel
The story takes place during following the first all-inclusive elections that punctuated the end of apartheid in South Africa in 1995. As Chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Tutu’s responsible for overseeing public restorative justice and the legal apparatus in which victims of human rights violations are permitted to give statements. The accused can give testimony as well while asking for amnesty from civil and criminal prosecution.
At the beginning of the film, Tutu is being treated for a severe health problem, but his duty to country and his religious faith inspire the Archbishop to push through toward the completion of his duties. However, as the larger part of South African society still struggles with the purpose and sincerity of the TRC, Tutu is also caught up in the investigation of a poor young woman living in a shantytown.
Her mother and first cousin, both of whom believe she was killed by a death squad, come to Tutu for assistance. Though Nelson Mandela is the first Black president in the history of the country, there was still a number of black South Africans who feared reprisal for admitting to criminal acts. If not from the new coalition government, then from the majority black South Africans themselves.
Amid all these things, the Archbishop has gotten himself caught up in the psychological mind game of the convicted killer and death squad leader Piet Blomfeld, who Eric Bana plays with every ounce of energy he can muster. Blomfeld is hateful, vile, violent, intelligent and manipulative, but deep down a very broken child.
Eventually, after much concern from those around him, Tutu is drawn to the prison at which this individual is housed. Though hints are dropped intermittently throughout the film, beginning with the opening scene, it isn’t until much later that the viewer is able to discern, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Blomfeld himself is also a victim. It is the trauma of seeing his childhood friend, a black South African little girl, murdered by his hate-filled father.
At first, Whitaker’s portrayal of Tutu is a little unnerving. If it wasn’t for the actor’s greater height and lighter complexion, I could not tell the difference between the actual and the facsimile if my life depended on it. I even thought, for an instant, that Whitaker’s performance was a bit much.
But, no, it was just that good. Yes, we see the prosthetic nose, we see his compassionate overtures toward a psychopath, but we also see him as a husband, a family man, and an individual who would like nothing better than to see his country forgive itself.
Much of the film is fictional. But the hate, the uncertainty, the tremendous loss and the heartless death squads that indiscriminately killed black South Africans certainly isn't.
To me, it appears as if the entire film is about the overwhelming importance of forgiving. Tutu comes across as the avatar of love through which the downtrodden, broken and spiritually sullied can be cleansed. Not unlike the Magic Negro troupe that occasionally appears in mainstream cinema, one’s suspension of disbelief wavers ever so slightly as we mere humans marvel at how Whitaker’s Desmond Tutu is able to maintain sanity, let alone display compassion for enemies that had no such compunctions for thousands of innocent black South Africans.
The acting of Erica Bana and Forest Whitaker is absolutely amazing. Though the plot is the only thing binding these diametrically opposed individuals with the same fate in the film, the very best scenes are those in which Whitaker and Bana engage one another.
Another very humanizing, balancing portion of the film was how it illustrated the relationship between Bishop Tutu and his wife Nomalizo Leah Tutu. She was his safe space in a country that was swirling with confusion.
Director Roland Joffe has always been known and criticized for his unflinching eye for violence in his movies. But the violence here isn’t gratuitous, and is needed to give weight to the story, as well as the concerns of the characters.
There were several instances in the movie where I felt the Blomfeld character played by Bana may have acted out of character, but his actions were needed to drive the story arc to conclusion.
A great tale of historic fiction with a real life precedent, The Forgiven is an emotionally riveting, well-acted offering.