“The Forgiven” Review: The Desert Atonement by Ralph Fiennes
Have you ever noticed how in Western culture, when referring to someone’s death, writers feel pressured to insert the word “tragic” somewhere in the sentence? Is there another type, a reader might rightly ask. Sometimes they mean “unexpected,” a kind of shorthand meant to show that the life in question was cut short before its time. But just as often, the phrase “tragic death” is simply redundant, a trite cliché meant to mean that the speaker is not a callous bastard.
Writer-director John Michael McDonagh recognizes that not all deaths are tragic. Some are merciful, others accidental; while many are unhappy, there are occasions when people encounter an ending that could be described as “poetic” – or at least deserved. McDonagh (like his younger brother Martin) is a brute force moralist. The two siblings write scripts in which the term “calculation” is often applied, i.e. movies and plays where atonement is inflicted in a brutal and bloody manner, often with nuance dark and comical. John Michael’s first three feature films – “The Guard”, “Calvary” and “War on Everyone” – certainly qualify, and his fourth, “The Forgiven”, is not just about such themes; it is consumed by them.
Undeniably mean but deliciously spicy in its portrayal of adult affairs, “The Forgiven” is set in Morocco, where life is cheap, but some things – like decency, respect and a healthy conscience – can’t be bought. . The film stars Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain as David and Jo, a chic European couple on vacation in the Sahara, who accidentally kills a boy and sees the situation not as a tragedy but rather as an inconvenience.
It is no coincidence that Jo took a copy of André Gide’s “L’Immoraliste” to read. David and Jo are too jaded about the trip to perceive themselves as literary figures – although that is exactly what they are: complicated protagonists in Lawrence Osborne’s biting 2012 novel. McDonagh saw something in the book, and while his adaptation is a fairly faithful rendering of the incidents and individuals in it, he modifies it here and there to suit his own view of the world, particularly in the way he directs the final minutes of the film.
“The Forgiven” observes – and judges – how ostensibly “civilized” aliens behave in a place where the laws do not affect them because they can buy their way out of any situation, an oasis made exotic by authors like Evelyn Waugh and Paul Bowles (whose most impure motives are brought to light here: “fuck the little Arab boys”, according to McDonagh’s typically blunt and deliberately offensive dialogue). Travel writer and social critic, Osborne seems to have been inspired by the (bad) behavior he observed while living in Morocco, cataloging the excesses as some sort of overwhelming evidence: if something terrible were to happen to these infidels received, they deserved it, for having fled into the desert for their debauchery, then to embark oranges from Spain, butter from Paris and drinking water from another corner of the country.
David and Jo were invited to a party in an old friend’s ksour in Azna. Their host is a snob (Matt Smith) whose partner (Caleb Landry Jones) throws decadent, muffled parties, the excess of which is an insult to the locals, who could live for years on wasted resources on a night of festivities. David is a “functional alcoholic” who fills up on alcohol before he gets behind the wheel, then hits a young fossil seller along the way, killing him instantly. It was after dark, and the boy got on David’s path. He refuses to acknowledge responsibility, insisting that the boy was to blame. Jo has doubts, but makes up her own excuses. Maybe the kid was a car thief – and thanks to a gun revealed early on, the movie allows that maybe he was.
Still, there’s no denying: David has blood on his hands – literally, while McDonagh is keen to show off his stained driving gloves – and as the film progresses, they’ll gradually take a step back from the situation. He will indeed have to face the boy’s father, express his contrition in the most convincing way possible and make the trip to Tafal’aalt to attend the funeral. These things are the custom, we are told. The payment too, and David brings 1,000 euros as the blood prize. He does not intend to pay a cent more.
Is that all a life is worth? And David’s? Chances are, he realizes, he won’t be coming back from the funeral trip. He fears being killed on the way by ISIS (the characters barely try to conceal their contempt for the locals), or executed by the dead boy’s vengeful father, Abdellah (Ismael Kanater), stoic but not as superficial a stereotype as he is. he the first. appears. While David is away, Jo seems genuinely worried but also released. The role may not seem like much to offer Chastain, but he gets the richest in many ways as she acts, quite recklessly, in pursuing an affair with a bisexual American (Christopher Abbott) because she can.
McDonagh has the nerve to make these characters deeply off-putting, if not downright unsympathetic, to his audience. They are upper class, overeducated and uncompassionate gargoyles, most of them – self-anointed elitists who would not shy away from claims of “privilege” (white or otherwise) and who could, in fact, be. too happy to reiterate their superiority over others if they are so accused.
But McDonagh loves his monsters, and by choosing someone as adept at conveying the nuances of character transformation as Fiennes, he’s showing he understands the core tragedy of “The Forgiven.” It is not the death of the boy we are mourning for. “The kid is nobody,” sneers David. It’s the fact that this seemingly unrecoverable character, David, might come to find his own humanity, and the epiphany still might not be enough to save him. “It had never occurred to him why he had not been forgiven, because he had forgiven himself,” Osborne writes in the last chapter of the book. Earlier, Jo also admitted, “I don’t need to be forgiven anymore.” McDonagh’s characters are more complex than the initial cartoons claim – perhaps, in the end, however pitiful – leaving the audience to decide what they think of his ultimate fate.