The Forgiven, set in Morocco, begins with a series of shots of a wealthy British tourist couple gazing critically at other white Western tourists. The camera, perfectly centred in front of them, creates the impression that they are also looking down upon the audience, judging us. They appear to gaze into an abyss, seemingly unaware that, as Nietzsche said, the abyss also gazes back into you.
This observation recalled for me summers back home in Southern Europe, watching Northern Europeans at local seafood restaurants complain about not being served chips. Visiting a new country brings out the worst in some. Perhaps people with an inherent sense of colonial privilege are struggling to balance the clash between a new culture and their self-aggrandising sense of entitlement. This idea flows through most of The Forgiven.
The British couple, Jo (Jessica Chastain) and David Henninger (Ralph Fiennes), are unhappily married and in Morocco to attend a party in an isolated desert mansion owned by a gay couple (Matt Smith and Caleb Landry Jones, treading a tenuous line between pantomime and seriousness). It’s a lavish party, fuelled by alcohol, drugs, food and enough excess, debauchery and indulgence to draw the judgmental gaze of the staff working the scenes. One of the guests, an American finance analyst (Christopher Abbott), says, “I like it here, it feels like a country where a useless man could be happy”: the epitome of a trite utterance by someone surrounded by decadent extravagance in a developing country.
The inciting incident comes when Jo and David accidentally run over and kill a young boy in the desert. The shock would be enough to discompose the best of us. Still, after the initial blow, the incident is quickly swept under the rug – legally, by the local authorities, and psychologically, by the couple, who turn the accident into an excuse for mulling over their relationship.
They’re quickly brought back to reality, however, when the boy’s father (Ismael Kanater) arrives and demands reparations, in the form of having David accompany him back to his village to bury his son.
“They could be f**king Isis, for all I know,” says David in a candid moment of bigotry. Again the audience’s own stereotypes are challenged: when you gaze at the bigot, the bigot also gazes into you.
During the trip to the village David has a unique opportunity for self-reflection and redemption, a chance to consider the consequences of his actions and the sense of humanity he has seemingly lost. And Jo, who remains behind, no longer affected by the shock of the death, indulges in sex, drugs and booze.
This scenario echoes L’avventura, Antonioni’s classic satire about the disappearance of a girl during a boat trip to an island by a group of playboys and their girlfriends. During the search for the girl, the others soon become lost in their own trivialities and forget about their missing friend. In The Forgiven, this echo would have resonated had the whole film had been made from Jo’s perspective. Yet writer/director John Michael McDonagh choose to interject with David’s sacrificial journey of self-discovery. It is not clear why McDonagh considers it so important to portray these parallel journeys. Is it because Jo’s carelessness diminishes David’s preoccupation with atonement? Does it mean that, precisely because she stayed behind, she’s not subjected to the experience of facing up to her own privilege, and this is intended to highlight a whole life of empty excesses?
McDonagh is a good filmmaker. Like his brother Martin (In Bruges and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri), he masters the tenuous line between dark tragedy and comedy. His film Calvary is a masterpiece of quiet intensity – but in The Forgiven, his adaptation of a novel by Lawrence Osborne, he spreads himself too thin by confidently addressing so many disparate themes. While his thematic intentions are sound and in keeping with the messaging of the novel, McDonagh seems to be overwhelmed by all the complexities examined in the book; two hours of film don’t even scratch the surface. His film shines in the moments where he explores the subjects he presented so satirically at the start.
The scenes between David and the father do highlight the morose profundity of which McDonagh is capable. Kanater’s performance is layered, and he steals the show with an intense monologue. It’s never in question that the man is both grieving and conflicted.
In contrast, the treatment of Jo’s journey lacks the weight to run in parallel with David’s, and can easily be misinterpreted, given its patronising lack of depth. Before we see Jo’s descent into indulgence, the point has already been well made that rich people are vain and empty. Seeing it in all its glory is as vapid and futile as expected, except for the moments where two Moroccan servants argue their ethical issues with working for unapologetic sinners.
The ending also unfortunately disappoints. McDonagh understands that some of the sociopolitical issues he is airing stem from the power in privilege. In perhaps the film’s darkest turn, the end blindly perpetuates this.