About midway through John Michael McDonagh’s The Forgiven, a trio of Moroccan Berber men struggle to carry a body from a garish estate in the middle of the desert to their Jeep. One of the men is the dead teenager’s father, and the other two are members of his tribe. They’re all clad in traditional dress, and among themselves they speak the Berber language Tamazight. To other Moroccans, like the ones who work at this gated mansion, they speak Arabic. To foreigners — like the British married couple who hit the teenager with their car on their way to this party — they speak English. While drunken, half-nude Americans and Europeans gasp and scream at a gigantic fireworks display, the nomads stand, stone-faced and resentful, with their already forgotten dead.
McDonagh wants this scene to capture the split between the vacationing first-worlders and aggrieved third-worlders and to swing our sympathies toward the latter. But it’s all a setup — a facetious, purposefully inflammatory scene in a film full of them. (The film is more along the lines of McDonagh’s acerbic satire of corrupt American cops, War on Everyone, than either of his other, more multifaceted black comedies, Calvary and The Guard.) The Forgiven may poke fun at the westerners, but the film’s ultimate ideology isn’t that far off from theirs. Among them we have Christopher Abbott as American financial analyst Tom, who sneers at refugees; Marie-Josée Croze’s French journalist Isabelle, who insists in one breath that her country has an “excellent” relationship with Arabs and in another calls them all terrorists; and Matt Smith’s moneyed host Richard, who flatly refuses to acknowledge that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have killed and displaced millions of people. The Forgiven treats these people as viciously ignorant and scummily self-involved, but it still gives them the primacy and interiority it refuses to extend to those it deems their victims.
Victims of geography, victims of colonialism, victims of circumstance, victims of the global economy — The Forgiven puts all these patronizing designations upon Moroccans and Berbers and thinks it’s doing them a kind of white-guilt-fueled favor. It isn’t. Certain performances are admittedly solid: Smith as the slippery Richard, Saïd Taghmaoui as the rigidly honor-minded Anouar, and Mourad Zaoui as the resigned butler Hamid all represent different points along the film’s spectrum of morality. But McDonagh’s screenplay flattens all interpersonal disagreements between these individuals by linking them, directly and repetitively, to Islam — the Moroccans’ belief in the religion and the partiers’ crude dismissal of it. How oppositional The Forgiven makes this dynamic gives the characters’ conversations and interactions an unconvincingly truculent quality. All of it leads to a uniquely trite ending through which The Forgiven grasps for profundity but lands on insincerity.
Based on Lawrence Osborne’s 2012 novel of the same name, The Forgiven takes place in Morocco, where lovers Richard and Dally (Caleb Landry Jones) are hosting their annual bacchanal of sex, alcohol, and drugs. On their way to Richard and Dally’s, unhappily married couple David (Ralph Fiennes) and Jo (Jessica Chastain) take turns tearing into each other and revealing — intentionally and unintentionally — angles of their own prejudice. Chastain’s line deliveries are crisply bemused when Jo tells David that he drinks too much and that his racism toward Moroccan men is boring, but she then reveals her own like-mindedness by gripping his arm for protection when they walk through a street in broad daylight. Fiennes is armed with an array of contemptuous looks and venomous digs of David’s own (“Why am I thinking harpy? Why am I thinking shrill?”), but none of this is heavy lifting for either actor. They each can do, and have done, versions of this evil-rich-person thing before, and neither brings anything new or specifically nuanced to The Forgiven.
It’s David and Jo who, while arguing and drunk during their drive to the party, hit the teenager, Driss (Omar Ghazaoui), and arrive at Richard and Dally’s with his body in their backseat. The partygoers gossip about why the couple was late but can barely summon a shrug over the young man’s death. The local police, paid off by Richard, aren’t too curious, either. Hamid is alone in caring about Driss until the deceased’s father, Abdellah Taheri (Ismael Kanater), and his two comrades, including Anouar, arrive to claim his body. When Abdellah demands that David go back to their village for Driss’s burial as a sign of respect, he begrudgingly agrees despite insisting he’s done nothing wrong. And while David hits the road, Jo stays behind to flirt with Tom, follow Dally’s advice (party extra hard to get over her trauma), and act out all the typical “ugh, white people” affectations you can imagine.
Too brief are the The Forgiven’s few scenes of believable grotesquery and thoughtful subversion: One of the party attendees grimaces in disgust when he takes the lid off a tagine and sees what’s being served for dinner; another household staff member tells Hamid he should get a Twitter account to compile all the judgmental proverbs he intones in response to the guests. Those moments are prickly in a way that push past the big questions The Forgiven is trying to answer about cross-cultural miscommunication; they instead dig into the specific microaggressions, passive and direct, that occur in systems of service and subservience. The film clearly intends for the partiers to be intolerable. But before it arrives at its anticlimactic ending, it tips its hand toward which people it thinks deserve second chances and which don’t. It’s too gutless to actually untangle the web of selfishness, Islamophobia, and privilege it weaves around its protagonists. “Interesting in a good way or interesting in a bad way?” Jo asks early in the film, and The Forgiven responds with a treacly, unearned answer.
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