Based on a 2012 Lawrence Osborne novel that might well have been set (with only small changes) many decades earlier, John Michael McDonagh’s The Forgiven watches rich Westerners treat Morocco like their playground, scarcely noticing the poverty and disapproval surrounding their opulent parties. Imperialist-grade entitlement goes only so far in the modern world, though, and when one partyer accidentally kills a local teen, some kind of accommodation is going to have to be made.
Scripted, directed and acted with intelligence and panache, it’s a very grown-up film but never a bore, a morally alert drama that leaves the scolding to us. Less mysterious and tightly wound than McDonagh’s excellent Calvary, it resonates with that 2014 drama in surprising ways.
A first-rate dramatization of friction between ancient mores and modern privilege.
David and Jo Henninger (Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain) arrive in Tangier dressed as if only a spot of trouble with immigration officials made them too late to co-star in The Sheltering Sky. He’s a well-born Brit who scowls at the mere tourists who loiter in hotel lobbies and gorge at buffets; she’s an American who has tolerated his alcoholism and snobbery for too long to claim any moral superiority. If he weren’t bad enough, David wears driving gloves as he drunkenly pilots their car toward the Sahara.
They’re headed to a remote castle owned by Jo’s old friend Richard (Matt Smith), who with boyfriend Dally (Caleb Landry Jones, louche and unpredictable) has invited an assortment of decadent aristocrats and finance types for a few days of pretending to be Noel Coward characters. But the Henningers get lost and grow frustrated, and David’s paying too little attention at the wheel to swerve when young Driss (Omar Ghazaoui) steps into the road.
Dinner is well underway when the couple quietly drive up with a dead boy in their back seat. What can the foreigners get away with? Will locals try to use this tragedy to extort them, or might David be, who knows, beheaded by ISIS? While bystanders puzzle over how best to proceed, David is too busy acting like he understands this country’s nuances to pretend he feels bad about ending someone’s life. Eventually, the boy’s father arrives — not to demand payment, but to insist that David accompany him on the long voyage back to his village, to witness the burial of his only son.
What can David’s wife and friends do but continue to drink and gossip until he returns — or doesn’t? Jo starts up a dangerous flirtation with a handsome stranger (Christopher Abbott) whose air of superiority far exceeds hers, despite the fact that, as a financial analyst, he’s probably the worst person at this gathering of unlikable people. Richard oversees his Xanadu of booze and bikinis as if there were nothing unseemly about hedonism and overconsumption in a region where pious Muslims spend every minute of sunlight digging up fossils to sell tourists. The head of his domestic staff (Mourad Zaoui, in a wry, understated performance), inured to such behavior, tries to minimize conflict with locals.
On the trip into the desert, English speaker Anouar (Saïd Taghmaoui), helps David keep from further offending Driss’ father, Abdellah (Casablanca-born actor Ismael Kanater), who refuses to address the Englishman directly. Complicated moral exchanges are underway long before David even begins to accept the weight of what he has done, and Anouar, like many translators before him, voluntarily compensates not only for David’s linguistic deficiencies but also for his lack of empathy and tact. As they drive, McDonagh and cinematographer Larry Smith show enough of the landscape to provide a sense of place without trying to dazzle us with travel-mag vistas.
Moving back and forth between settings, the film contrasts the fatuous political chitchat of the Westerners with the little that David witnesses of a country he was snobbily passing judgments on just days before. Inevitably, he is humbled. But it happens in an almost subversive way, seeming to satisfy some Anglo-flattering narrative conventions while actually subjecting the film’s characters to other kinds of logic. Is David “forgiven” by the end? What could he possibly do to earn that?