“I don’t’ need to be forgiven anymore,” Jo (Jessica Chastain)
In Morocco’s High-Atlas mountain range of north Africa, a prosperous couple holidays at a friend’s ksour in Azna only to discover their imperfections do not take a holiday. Causing a random accident that kills an Arab boy, Driss, driver David (Ralph Fiennes) and companion Jo are thrown into conflicts with Muslims and themselves.
Between the hot Sahara sands and the relentless sun, nothing but the real self can live. David, an uncompassionate, elite physician (about Driss: “The kid is a nobody”), is as cynical as he could be, and Jo, a writer of children’s books, is as repressed as she could be until David leaves with Driss’s father, Abdellah (Ismael Kanater), to attend to Driss’s interment, not a required journey for David, but dad requests and David complies.
Although it might be inferred that David is going into danger willingly to expiate his sin of driving too drunk and too fast for the accident, David turns out to be more honorable than his alcoholism and misanthropy might imply. Such is the character mutation common in a parable.
The Forgiven, however, turns on identity—David burying the boy’s identification at the accident is sacrilegious to the Arabs, and Jo’s liberated, loose behavior while he is gone belies the virtuous behavior The Arabs expect from women.
“Civilized” Westerners are not respected—why do they even buy fossils that the Arabs deem worthless? While the discussion about why Westerners buy them is worth its attention, even more so is the trilobite fossil that contains the devil, transferable to the Europeans.
In other words, moralist writer-director John Michael McDonagh’s The Forgiven is embedded with symbolism that works. Strangers in a strange land need to respect the humblest rituals such as burial and fidelity. The film doesn’t paint the foreigners favorably, but then Westerners have been demonizing Arabs for decades in our films.
Unforgettable are the drone shots of their white cars navigating barely discernible roads, apt metaphor for the lost souls of the foreigners and the superiority of the natives. Equally memorable are the almost sweatless activities, helped by the Arab’s growing affinity for ice. Cross cultural fertilization is a constant with the visitors not always favored recipients.
Nonetheless, a random accident has changed everyone except the oasis’s European revelers, who move on without a ruffled shirt or moral code. The Forgiven is a parable exposing the frailty of mankind, regardless of color. Who’s better, the aliens or the locals? a good morality tale leaves it to the viewer.
Director: John Michael McDonagh (The Guard)
Screenplay: McDonagh from Lawrence Osborne novel.
Cast: Ralph Fiennes (Schindler’s List), Jessica Chastain (The Eyes of Tammy Faye)
Run Time: 1h 57m
John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts NPR’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics as well as podcasts Back Talk and Double Take out of WCBE 90.5 FM. Contact him at JohnDeSando52@gmail.com