What it's about: Archbishop Desmond Tutu [Forest Whitaker] was appointed by newly elected president of South Africa Nelson Mandela to head a special Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In order to try and maintain peace among the social classes after apartheid, violent criminals were given the opportunity to ask for amnesty. If they confessed in full to their crimes and asked for forgiveness, the Commission would review their case and potentially grant their release. In a dangerous Cape Town prison, Tutu conducts interviews with Piet Blomfeld [Eric Bana] in connection to a family's request to find out information about a murdered teenage girl. Blomfeld is Tutu's toughest test, an unrepentant man who openly challenges the worldview of the man of faith.
A biopic about Desmond Tutu in the post-apartheid era starring Forest Whitaker should be a big deal. This is the kind of premise that you'd expect the Academy to be salivating over. And yet, The Forgiven slipped through a limited theatrical release with middling reviews before getting a home video release before the midpoint of the year.
Being directed by Roland Joffé, The Forgiven turned out basically as I expected. It is a competent film without much style and a social justice message that is far from subtle. It doesn't do much to challenge the viewer despite a challenging premise. There are dramatic stakes but show little dramatic impact.
Viewed as a Tutu biopic, The Forgiven is a misfire but it is far from the worst of its genre. It leans into being universal while depicting a limited space and time, which is usually better than the all-encompassing approach. Aside from a few quiet glimpses of Tutu's life outside of his government duty, The Forgiven isn't too concerned with presenting his life at all. The character is almost exclusively built in conversations, which is structurally smart even if the film doesn't do it particularly well.
Forest Whitaker starring as an important African historical figure immediately brings to mind The Last King of Scotland, but this role or performance couldn't be more different. While Tutu isn't without passion, he's a reserved and considerate thinker, far from braggadocious.
Perhaps a more distracting difference is the look of the characters in relation to the actor. Whitaker shared enough in appearance to Idi Amin so the filmmakers didn't do much to the actor. For Tutu, however, Whitaker is covered in makeup and prosthetics to change his hairline and facial features. It doesn't do anything to effect the performance but I couldn't always bridge the gap of Forest Whitaker to Desmond Tutu. The strings are fully visible.
With some quick research, I found that The Forgiven was based on a play called The Archbishop and the Antichrist, which is a much more tantalizing title. It also makes a lot of sense, as the film plays as a series of conversations, Tutu sitting across from a grieving mother or a doctor or a police officer or Blomfeld. The specific conversations he has with Blomfeld are like intellectual battles but they should have more emotional impact. They are the centerpieces of the film and don't play like it.
Eric Bana's performance isn't anything extraordinary. He is rocking a fantastic mustache, though.
Interestingly, the aspects of the film that I appreciated the most didn't have much to do with the lead character. One particular subplot follows a young man assimilating to an African prison gang called "The 28." Eventually, he is ordered to kill Blomfeld, who is a strong force in the rival white faction. The captures the racial discord of the era in a more interesting way than explicit lip service.
Another round of Blu-ray trailers! The list here wasn't promising: the critically mocked and reviled Sean Penn feature The Last Face, late-career Al Pacino detective mystery Hangman, Ethan Hawke's low quality balance to First Reformed, 24 Hours to Live, Antonio Banderas's entry into the old man action revenge flick Acts of Vengeance, and the decent Small Town Crime.