Roland Joffé’s The Forgiven is largely successful in its attempt to grapple with the terrible truths of apartheid and its legacy. Based on co-screenwriter Michael Ashton’s play The Archbishop and the Antichrist, the film is a fictionalized account of Desmond Tutu’s (Forest Whitaker) efforts at the head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to confront the atrocities of apartheid as part of an effort to heal and unite South Africa. The Forgiven, like Joffé’s 1984 cinematic breakthrough The Killing Fields, is cerebral and unflinchingly violent in its depiction of a country’s recent political history.
Though most of its action takes place in the mid 1990s shortly after the T.R.C. was assembled, the film opens in 1955, when young Afrikaner Piet Blomfeld (played as an adult by a bulked-up Eric Bana) witnesses his father massacre the family of a black girl with whom Piet is close friends. This unspeakable act is put forward as a kind of foundation myth for the spirit of forgiveness at the heart of the T.R.C.’s mandate. It shows that even homicidal bigots like Blomfeld, now a seemingly irredeemable prisoner serving time for his role in a government death squad that terrorized black South Africans, may be worthy of redemption. Blomfeld stands in for the thousands of South Africans called before the T.R.C. to seek forgiveness for their complicity in the crimes of apartheid. His equivocal fate captures the difficulties of finding truth and creating reconciliation in an environment full of so much hatred and sorrow.
Whitaker gives Tutu an appropriately outsized characterization. With his preposterous prosthetic nose and indomitable joviality, the actor initially comes off a bit over the top. There’s also no convincing reason given for why Tutu, overwhelmed with his work on the T.R.C., would go out of his way to meet an outwardly unrepentant, homicidal psychopath like Blomfeld in prison. The Tutu of The Forgiven is driven by his implicitly uncanny ability to find the good in everyone, and given that the archbishop has enthusiastically endorsed the film, it’s not surprising that he’s shown in such a saintly, flawless light.
But the interactions between Tutu and Blomfeld are nothing short of mesmerizing, showing two radically opposing ideologies fighting for survival in the guises of these shrewd, indomitable men. The Forgiven’s plot, which exists primarily to create reasons to bring these deeply antagonistic individuals together, is somewhat superfluous, casting Tutu in the role of a detective using the T.R.C. to discover the fate of a young black girl apparently abducted by government forces during the apartheid era. Just as Blomfeld stands in for all of the perpetrators of apartheid, this missing girl represents its victims. While the investigation and resolution of this mystery isn’t very convincing, it creates a perfect vehicle for presenting Tutu as a well of sorrow into which his interlocutors on both sides of the conflict pour their loathing and despair.