A review of The Forgiven, by John Michael McDonagh

The AV Club reviews Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain's The Forgiven, by John Michael McDonagh

Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain in the forgiven
ImageNick Wall / Courtesy of roadside attractions and vertical entertainment

Moments of casual bigotry foreshadow the tragic event that is about to begin the forgiven: a bickering couple who drive into the desert for their friends’ party, hit a young fossil seller with their car and kill him. It’s an act of unintended violence, but one colored by the inescapable facts that the pair are wealthy white tourists – he’s British and she’s American – while the victim is poor and Arab in Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains. Without the driver’s earlier claim that locals “treat their wives like donkeys,” we might write this off as a car accident story.

Writer-director John Michael McDonagh (of the 2011 hit film) The guard) know that we know better. That xenophobia continues to penetrate far beyond the prologue, the forgiven like poisonous fumes delivered by a line of prejudiced killer snobs. A partygoer turns his nose up at the sumptuous Moroccan dishes served by servants. One of the hosts brags about the “authentic” clothing he designed for those servants. The expression “ethnic pretentiousness” is pronounced. Discrimination, exoticization, willful ignorance, ill-disguised disregard for local customs – you name it, these vacationers have it.

It’s easy to see the death of a local African boy by wealthy white visitors as an extension of that xenophobia, a literal cultural clash. Adapted from Lawrence Osborne’s 2012 novel of the same name. the forgiven follows David and Jo Henninger (Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain) on a weekend trip to the desert villa of their eccentric friends Richard and Dally (Matt Smith and Caleb Landry Jones). Gossip about the fatal accident quickly spreads through the party – Jo blurts it out between sips of wine – and it soon becomes apparent that their only recourse is for David to accompany the dead boy’s father, Abdellah Taheri (Ismael Kanater), to his home. village on the other side of the desert for its respects. David, who could barely show any remorse to the police, would rather just pay cash, preferably not much.

But is there more to the couple’s story? David states that he indeed knew the victim’s name was Driss (Omar Ghazaoui), although no one knows that another boy (Aissam Taamart) witnessed the incident on the dark road that night. While Jo recovers by indulging in cocktails and cocaine, and drifts into the arms of funny party guest Tom (Christopher Abbott), David embarks on an odyssey across the desert and into the depths of his own guilt. Is forgiveness waiting? Can the descendants of the oppressed acquit the oppressors? The story wanders around these questions; even Abdellah, who hovers somewhere between vengeful threat and grief for his only son, has no clear answer—at least until the film has impressively shocking final seconds. The only thing that is certain is that his village will continue to dig for fossils to sell to tourists, who will move on to other exotic locations, and little about that is fair, and the world will continue to turn.

As McDonagh describes that disparity, you get the sense that he too despises these characters but loves his actors. By portraying the rogue states of the have-nots in such a nuanced way, the film runs the risk of oversimplifying the have-nots. David is led on his journey of penance by Abdellah’s community of stoic Berbers, while those who play Richard’s pleasantly obnoxious guests are given satire, politics, and most importantly, humor to work with. It is almost a relief when Abdellah begins to uncork his true feelings in the exciting closing act, if only to see the great Kanater show his range. A story that explores white guilt and colonial suffering is inherently appropriate for a white audience. Or at least this one does; I can’t imagine it would help North African Arabs much, despite McDonagh giving his non-white characters an ambiguous arc here or a cathartic moment there. Hamid (Mourad Zaoui), a butler who speaks proverbs perfect for any occasion, has weird vibes towards Jo, a welcome element of subtext back at the villa.

The Forgiven | Official trailer (HD) | Vertical

The movie looks and sounds great, with cinematographer Larry Smith (Only God forgives) capturing bright reds and blues amid the sweltering desert, and Lorne Balfe’s music immersing us in North Africa. As Jo, Chastain upholds her reputation as an actor with a firm hand on the intensity knob. The net worth of the reigning best actress Oscar winner turning the removal of sunglasses into a drama on the edge of your seat rarely disappoints. Fiennes has more opportunity for nuance, with David trying to “cross the bridge and be done with things,” one of many lines he says with convincing spontaneity. He is so convincingly disgusting from the first moment he sees the Moroccan coastline that any sideways glance at a rising conscience feels surprising yet deserved; his first sign of terror, in a tense lamp-lit scene opposite Kanater, brilliantly lays the groundwork for the denouement to come. And Abbott fits in perfectly with McDonagh’s palpable cynicism; there’s something pretty off-putting about him, like everything Tom does hide his self-loathing.

Moviegoers who happen to be white westerners may come face to face with their own self-loathing thanks to the forgiven– the next time they are abroad, hopefully they will be wary of exhibiting even a hint of the colonialist mentality of these monstrous characters. But despite valiant efforts to avoid glorifying the tourists he skewers, McDonagh isn’t cracking the code to extend the same level of empathy to his non-white characters, largely because they’re supporters rather than leads. A more successful juxtaposition would examine the ramifications of this incident for both Abdellah and David. As a result, his film moves closer to embodying the tragic futility of two irreconcilable cultures trying to make sense of it, rather than properly deconstruct it.

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