The Forgiven (2021)

A look at rich people not appreciating what they have (beauty, good things, comfort and indulgence), and how indigenous populations can be othered and made strangers in their own land and times. More than this, an film of ethics too — unusually a film about shame, guilt and who and what can be forgiven.

Ralph Fiennes (David) and Jessica Chastain (Jo) are a rich white Western couple, unhappily long term married and snapping at each other as they drive 400 miles through the desert to attend an old school friend’s soiree. Worth going to as that old school chum is none other than fabulous Matt Smith (Richard). Loftily the couple observe other Westerners behaving badly towards Moroccan people and in a nimby way are ashamed and know that they are better because they don’t behave like that. They speak French and seemingly respect the culture — except when they don’t.

Interwoven with their journey is another journey — two young boys are collecting fossils in the desert and one, Driss, develops a plan to rob tourists on their way to the fabulous soiree. Unfortunately this plan to instant wealth involves stepping out infront of moving vehicles to get them to stop. It was never going to end well, but this one time goes spectacularly badly because they hit the boy — they kill him. The second boy, (they work in pairs), hangs back and observes what happens next.

Very late to the party, Jo and David arrive at Richard’s weekender, with a corpse to deal with. Now interwoven with the party guests antics are the staff at the party — who often have a wry, horrified and very different outlook on things. Driss’s father (Abdellah Taheri) arrives to collect his son’s body for burial and to demand a debt of David — not money, but that he will come with him to their village and spend time there. This leads to a panic about whether he is ISIS, how much money he’ll want and what he will do to David. Hamid (one of Richard’s staff) thinks David is noble to go along. Off they go into the desert, leaving Jo behind at chez Richard.

Fundamentally there is a huge culture clash going on. Richard and his partner Dally live in a gated, servanted Yves Sant Laurent/Lawrence of Arabia fantasy palace; Richard navigates between the two cultures smoothly and yet encourages activities and behaviours which mark them as other. Channelling Coachella, the guests dance by the pool, DJ, prize authenticity without knowing the names of the local foods they’re eating, snobbily snark at each other and indulge all their appetites and desires, despised by those serving them. They treat local Moroccans (in their own land) as strange and other — when infact they are the others, separated and somewhat fearful of the local people, using rather than connecting; life is all a bit of a joke and people and themselves observed at a distance. A total opposite of E M Forester travels. The guests are also quite surface — they self-serve and speak vulgarities without caring or meaning anything, and are happy to offend local people in their behaviour — almost proud of showing how free, Western and ‘civilised’ they are. Authenticity is prized — but is any of it authentic?

Encouraged by Richard, who seems a terrible friend to David spreading nasty stories about him to whoever he’s with (and perhaps playing to their own prejudices, David is either rightist or leftist in his outlandish deeds), and seems to enjoy treating his guests like games — giving a nudge here or there to see what develops. Having been the conscience of the film, Jo now starts to behave irresponsibly and selfishly.

David meanwhile is having the opposite experience. He knows he needs to appear sorry and contrite — over time, this act seems to become more and more of a reality. There is still culture clash — David cannot sit or drink tea or eat with others because of who and what he is; he needs to keep his room locked due to being a man alone in a house with women. Anouar cares for David and acts as his protector. Another member of the household enjoys threatening David in Arabic, seeing himself as there to keep David in situ — unfortunately neither of them can understand each other’s languages.

Driss is mourned and buried, David actually stays in Driss’s room as this is the only guest room available. Relieved to still be alive, Anouar takes David back to the soiree, treating him to croissants along the way and a view of goats in trees. Anouar shares his dreams of living in cold Sweden; David confesses that he was more culpable in the accident than it first appeared — he was arguing with his wife, not paying attention, driving too fast, had been drinking all day. In being transparent and honest, he seeks to be forgiven, and even gives Anouar money. Anouar is clearly shocked, although he doesn’t express it directly. Is David really an honourable man?

However Jo has become a different person. Feeling unloved and neglected by her alcoholic husband, she chats then flirts with Tom (Christopher Abbott). Encouraged by Richard’s party spirit, lots of alcohol, dancing and some hard drug taking, she commits adultery with Tom, and decides that she needs to divorce David, as her writing inspiration returns too. David returns to make a new start and makes another night time drive through the desert with Jo.

Having heard the truth from Driss’s friend, Driss’s father has called in a debt — rather than forgiveness, there is retribution. It’s a terrible burden to put on a young boy as he clearly doesn’t want to shoot David, having posed as a fossil seller and stopped the vehicle. David feels he’s learnt and is forgiven, shown by his metamorphosis from Western suits to a red ‘Moroccan’ style shirt, expressing gratitude for what he has and experiences and even stopping Jo from having the divorce chat, suggesting a new way of being in their marriage. Fearlessly stepping out to meet the boy in the road, David sees the gun in his hand, the boy’s intentions and perhaps realises that he isn’t really sorry, or that he has culturally blundered and is willing to pay the ultimate price. Horrifyingly he is shot in front of his wife — there is no forgiveness, just retribution, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life. Is he honourable in urging the boy to do what he must?

For me it’s the Moroccan characters who really make this film. To an extent it could be a beautifully shot film, showing vile characters doing vile things — there is dishonour and shame as characters seem to delight in being observed doing things which are offensive to the local Moroccan culture. Jo seems to enjoy Hamid seeing her having sex with Tom, as Richard is found in bed with Dally. When does freedom become offense, where is your shame and sense of honour? Every act also has a payment or debt to be met. No-one is who they seem to be — Hamid despises his Western employers; Richard finds all his guests secretly ghastly; some of the guests just want influence or financing through Richard’s status; not all Moroccans are the same — Hamid doesn’t understand Abdellah Taheri’s culture because he’s from the south, a Bedouin; even Bedouin’s are different such as the one dispensing tea, but fears the cast of David’s shadow over him or the same touch on cup or plate; David doesn’t understand Anouar as he seeks to buy him at the end — Anouar has shared brotherhood with him, friendship and David gives him honesty and cash. Anouar clearly feels lied to and uncomfortable about being given money by a self-confessed murderer; after 12 years together Jo and David do not understand each other; Hamid offers David connection by greeting his return with a beer — all David can do is guzzle the beer and lament the lack of greeting from his white hosts - (this inspite of his drinking creating his problems in the first place). Even those characters such as the party photographer Isabelle or film maker Leila are on the make, not really critiquing the culture they’re part of. Deeply, very few understand the Moroccan culture they’re in, treating it as a playground where they can do what they want — even to the danger of themselves and others.

Conversely, Driss’s dignified, angry, grief stricken father did understand his only son — why he stole a valuable fossil (an ‘Elvis’ from him), his son’s hopes and dreams. He even understands why David hid Driss’s ID after they hit and killed him. He also understands that David isn’t truly sorry or contrite, but putting on an act, going through the motions. David’s confession to Anouar is about as close as he comes to truth — he thinks that transparency and confession is the same as honesty, and therefore he is almost entitled to forgiveness having ‘spoken his truth’. David can’t even respect the dead boy — having tried to hide his identity and filched a Dalek from Driss’s room as a souvenir. But he has a shock coming — life is more costly and demands a much higher price than he expects.

See this for the amazing performances by Ismaïl Abou El Kanater, Saïd Taghmaoui and Ben Affan as a police officer, Captain Bernihadd, whose eyes remain hidden by sunglasses the entire time — but is perhaps more knowing than he appears as they resolve the inconvenient matter of Driss’s death, navigating the Western assumption that Driss would not have any community or anyone to care about him. Mourad Zaoui’s proverb quoting Hamid was brilliant too — smoothly hiding his disgust at misbehaving Westerners and dreaming of professional dignity and respect. This also leads to the best joke ever — that Hamid should have a Twitter account!

On one level, I’m thinking about how shocking forgiveness is; when someone truly chooses to release the debt, the guilt, the payment that someone owes them, to not carry out retribution. More than this, how grace and forgiveness are the opposite of what we might think — rather than a fluffy forgetting of the pain and grief caused, especially for something that can’t be paid back for (like a life) is more a radical question — how then will you live in light of being released from debt and shame, guilt and payment, of not being given the justice and sentence you deserve. With grace and forgiveness, there are still consequences for these things underserved.

My quibbles with this film are the glamourising of drug taking — is snorting something that can rot your nose membranes and cause all kinds of side effects really worth showing as a fun friends past-time leading to self-empowerment, sexy times and a hangover? Similarly the neck hold strangle during Jo and Tom’s sex scene — given how some culture’s current obsession with rough sex is leading to problems in legal prosecutions of assaults, is the depiction that all women really want to be ‘sluts’ (I quote from the film here) and, it appears, strangled really wise? I suppose though that David has some hints that Jo has been unfaithful and in shutting down her conversation opener with him, can either be seen as forgiving her or avoiding the consequences. At the heart of the film it seems are consequences avoided.

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Susan Tailby

Susan Tailby

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By Susan Tailby. Appreciator of arts and culture; things I've seen and enjoyed and you might too! Reviews all my own opinion....