The Forgiven Struggles With Colonial Dreams

John Michael McDonagh’s The Forgiven is a prestige movie about colonial violence. It’s anchored by a wonderful performance from two celebrated white Hollywood actors. It’s also an object lesson in how the prestige of celebrated white Hollywood actors can undermine an effort to grapple with colonial violence.

The actors in question are Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain. They play a British couple, David and Jo Henninger, who travel to Morocco to attend a fabulous, decadent party thrown by their friend Richard (Matt Smith). In Jo’s words, David is a “high-functioning alcoholic,” and he drinks steadily as they drive across the desert, bickering with Jo all the while.

In the night, a Berber boy named Driss (Omar Ghazaoui) steps in front of the car, hoping to flag it down to sell fossils. David hits and kills him.

Richard bribes the police, and the Henningers hope the incident will just go away. But the boy’s father, Abdellah (Ismael Kanater), appears at Richard’s gate. He demands that David come with him to help him bury the child. David agrees. The movie then cuts between the ongoing party and David’s journey, teetering between possible forgiveness and possible revenge

An Orientalist Heart of Darkness

Driss’ violent death is a metaphor and a stand-in for colonial violence writ large. Richard’s party is an exercise in the decadent expenditure of large sums of cash. In the middle of the dry Sahara, he has endless food, barrels of alcohol, and even a luxurious pool. He also paid for a massive fireworks display; it incongruously goes off just as Abdellah retrieves his son’s body.

Attractive, barely dressed Westerners—including the stunning Chastain as Jo—don swimsuits, boogie, and snog beneath the desert sky. They chat blithely about how the Iraq War isn’t America’s fault and how the Muslims resent them. Meanwhile, David travels across the barren landscape to Abdelleh’s tiny, half-buried home, where his relatives work from sun-up to sun-down digging fossils out of the dirt to sell to bored, jaded foreigners. It is the only source of work.

David’s journey is also a journey into himself, and Driss’ death makes Jo reevaluate her marriage. Their encounter with Morocco, and the violence they bring to Morocco, work a change in them. Murder is a growth experience.

In this story, the east is there to teach Western white people about their violence, their sexuality, and their souls. Scholar Edward Said called this narrative dynamic “Orientalism.” Orientalism is a kind of racism and colonialism. In Orientalist stories, Eastern cultures exist to validate European identity. So Driss is a character in David’s drama, rather than vice-versa. The Easterner steps into the road to be run over by White psychodrama.

From Morocco to Sweden

The Forgiven is self-conscious about this dynamic. Jo reads a copy of Andre Gide’s The Immoralist, a book that Edward Said specifically critiqued for its Orientalism. And David and Jo try various ways to erase Driss’ identity; they’re even reluctant to say his name.

The film also gives the viewer glimpses of the lives of the people who live in Morocco and underlines that they have their own stories and desires, and dreams.

One of Abdellah’s friends, Anouar (Saïd Taghmaoui), wants to move to Sweden, which he imagines as a land of transcendent luxury and coolness. The Easterner imagines himself in a semi-mythic West rather than vice versa.

One of Matt’s staff, Hamid (Mourad Zaoui), spies on Jo’s sexual exploits. At least for a moment, she is the decadent Westerner performing for a titillated Eastern gaze. The viewer is encouraged to see the scene with Eastern eyes. “A woman without discretion is like a gold ring in a pig’s snout,” Hamid quips to a friend. Then his friend tells him he should get a Twitter account.

The movie also, and insistently, refuses to erase Driss and his family. Abdellah is devastated by the loss of his son. In his house, out of the desert, he takes off his turban and sits crushed by grief. He isn’t the face of the desert or a specter haunting David. He’s just a dad whose child was killed too young in a road accident.

Stars Bigger Than Life, Or Morocco

Such moments are welcome. But they don’t really change the fact that this is a story set in Morocco, about a tragedy in a Moroccan family that stars white people.

Fiennes and Chastain and Matt Smith are big, name stars. Their presence is in no small part what the movie is selling. Like the wonderful Taghmaoui, the Berber performers have, almost inevitably, less clout and less profile. Movie industry dynamics mirror colonial ones.

The leads are white, if only because, thanks to prejudice and colonial history, there aren’t a lot of internationally recognized Berber stars. And as long as that’s the case, the movie can’t escape the white Orientalist framing it tries to critique.

The Forgiven makes one last effort to decenter David and Jo with a final twist-ending reversal. At the end of their journey, the Westerners are put in the place of the Berbers. They are no longer acting but are instead acted upon.

Such trickery can’t work, though, because Fiennes and Chastain will always be the main actors in any scene they’re in. His face, weathered with new wisdom, and hers, pale with dawning realization, hang over the desert. Movie stars are in the foreground, and Morocco is in the background. In Hollywood, that’s almost always the default, rather than something that needs to be forgiven.

The Forgiven plays in selected theaters July 1st.

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This post was produced by and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Image Credit: Focus Features.

Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.