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The Forgiven Struggles With Colonial Dreams
It's hard to critique colonialism when your stars are white.
Rating: 7/10 stars
John Michael McDonagh’s The Forgiven is a prestige movie about colonial violence. It’s anchored by 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). David is, in Jo’s words, 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 in hopes of flagging it down to sell fossils. David hits and kills him.
Richard bribes the police, and the Henninger’s 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 has paid for a massive fireworks display, too; it incongruously goes off just as Abdelleh is retrieving his son’s body.
Attractive barely dressed Westerners—including the stunning Chastain as Jo—don swimsuits and 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, works 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 in 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 Abdelleh’s friends, Anouar (Saïd Taghmaoui) wants to move to Sweden, which he imagines as a land of transcendent luxury and cool. 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. She is, at least for a moment, 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. Abdelleh 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. The Berber performers, like the wonderful Taghmaoui, 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 Forbidden 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 are always going to 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 the foreground, Morocco is the background. In Hollywood that’s almost always the default, rather than something that needs to be forgiven.
First published June 2022.
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