While it has been two decades since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded, bringing to a close South Africa’s cathartic period of reckoning with its violent history of racial segregation, director Roland Joffé’s new film returns to that time to grapple with the terrible truths of apartheid and its legacy.
Based on Michael Ashton’s play The Archbishop and the Antichrist (the playwright collaborated on the screenplay with Joffé), The Forgiven is a fictionalised account of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s efforts as the head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to confront the atrocities of apartheid in an attempt to heal and unite South Africa.
Explaining the reasoning behind the film, Joffé says: “This is a subject that’s both social and political but also rather personal, because let’s be honest, we’ve all done things in our lives that we need forgiveness for, that we haven’t come to terms with. We’re all prisoners of our history, whether it’s social, cultural or family.”
Two-time academy nominee Joffé has gained a reputation for hard-hitting political stories and The Forgiven, like his 1984 cinematic breakthrough The Killing Fields, is cerebral and unflinchingly violent in its depiction of South Africa’s recent political history.
The drama follows Archbishop Desmond Tutu, masterfully portrayed by Forest Whitaker, and his struggle – morally and intellectually – with brutal murderer and member of a former apartheid-era hit squad Piet Blomfeld (Eric Bana), over redemption and forgiveness.
When Tutu receives a highly articulate letter pleading for clemency, written by the convicted murderer, he becomes intrigued enough to visit the prisoner in his cell; here the two men have a series of intense conversations about guilt and forgiveness.
Academy Award winner Whitaker delivers a finely nuanced performance, conveying Tutu’s formidable inner strength, dignity and compassion. Having previously portrayed a South African in the film Zulu (2013), he already had an informed understanding of South Africa’s history, which he utilises to add depth and power to his performance as the Archbishop.
Despite being one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed actors, Whitaker confessed that playing Tutu proved to be one of the biggest challenges of his career. “I knew his laugh, his sense of humour, how he felt, his passion, and his faith. But he has a graceful way in which he looks at the world. Trying to pull those things together, to capture the spirit of the man, was challenging.”
Bana, too, delivers a powerhouse performance, using his physicality and charisma to make a loathsome character suitably scary, but also very human.
“This is probably the most intimidating character I’ve ever played,” admits the Australian actor.
“The key to the character, for me, was just throwing myself into South African history. There was so much that I needed to know, before I could stand any chance of understanding where Blomfeld’s warped sense of entitlement came from. It was just one of those roles where you have to really jump into the deep end, and trying to learn and understand a lot of the history was the first step.”
Produced by Craig Baumgarten and South African producing partner Zaheer Goodman-Bhyat from Light and Dark Films, the film was shot completely in and around Cape Town, including at one of the world’s most dangerous prison facilities, Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison. It also boasts strong performances by Jeff Gum, Morné Visser and Thandi Makhubele.
According to the producers, the story is poignant and timely. “It reminds us of Archbishop Tutu’s gift of forgiveness and the healing it brings, and we are honoured to tell this story.”
The Archbishop himself has given the project his blessing, saying: “This timely, compelling and intelligent film, movingly, and above all humanely, captures what it felt like to be working with those selfless members of the TRC who strove, often against the odds, to help bring both truth and reconciliation to the ordinary people of South Africa. The film is a tribute to the remarkable and healing power of forgiveness and the outstanding compassion and courage of those who offered love and forgiveness as an antidote to hate and inhumanity. This is not only a film about a certain time and place, it is a pean of hope to humanity at large.”
With potent acting, relevant social commentary, adept writing and direction, THE FORGIVEN is a powerful film, and the ultimate testament to the power of forgiveness and finding common ground in our humanity. The film will be released in cinemas, nationwide, on 5 October 2018.