Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Jul 16, 2022 10:37 am 
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Available via Roadside Attractions and Vertical Entertainment from July 15, 2022



Colonialism and moral relativism in Morocco

The Forgiven is a rich, provocative, and largely faithful adaptation of Lawrence Osborne's much admired eponymous novel about an incident in the Moroccan desert. If it's not entirely satisfying, that's because the novel, though absorbing, isn't wholly satisfying either. In both cases the points are made a little obviously and the lore surrounding outsiders, especially gay ones, in Morocco and the moral relativism of white people in poor countries is already so copious. While watching The Forgiven (deeply ironic title) one can't help but feel, despite the expatriate and travel writer Osborne's considerable knowledge of the country, that Paul Bowles, who absorbed Morocco and its fatalism to the bone, would have done this with a stone cold simplicity that would have been more devastating and more memorable. And this may mainly be a Bowles novel meshed with The Great Gatsby and a dash of Hemingway's "Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber." This non-Bowles version of Bowles seems overstuffed. But watch the movie for the actors, including some very good Moroccan ones, for the exotic scenery, and for the suspense.

The guilty ones are a privileged European couple, David and Jo Hettinger (Ralph Fiennes, Jessica Chastain, both excellent, he with more to do and more nuance to show). He, a snobbish upperclass Brit, is dripping with condescension for the locals: he would call them "wogs" if the term were not out of date. She, American, a minor children's book author who's not written for years, is deeply frustrated and crabby, but still beautiful. They arrive in Tangier, rent a car, and drive to the magnificent ksar, an appropriated and lavishly renovated village, one of the properties of a rich, spoiled gay couple, for a spectacular annual party that the privileged fly in for from all over. David and Jo live in London, where their marriage is festering and his career as a surgeon is in danger for a bad mistake he's made. They squabble constantly and he's an alcoholic. On the way to the party, at night, half-drunk, on an unmarked road, squabbling, he hits a boy and kills him.

It may be surprising that David loads the body into the back of the rental car, and while it may not be surprising - when I lived in Morocco one heard a lot about le téléhone arabe - that despite an effort to cover up the accident, the boy's father Abdellah (Ismael Kanater) quickly arrives, still it seems ill advised that David decides to obey the man's command that he accompany him to his remote village for the boy's funeral. The teasers are about what will happen then and what will happen later. Abdellah is a major teaser in himself: at first he seems to speak only a Berber language, Tashelhit; but more will be revealed. The dead boy was called Driss. We glimpse him and his mate at the very outset, a very vivid scene for the strange language - again, Tashelhit - they speak. It makes one realize Berber is a big influence on Moroccan Arabic. One of the boys (big boys) has a pistol. They will turn out to be disobeying Abdellah.

This incident disrupts the party ant turns it into a nightmare, but the festivities go on and the story pays a lot of attention to the spectacle of them. The young Moroccan "staff" - but "servants" is preferred - costumed as "pirates" are putatively devout muslims who don't drink and regard Christians as infidels serving out gallons of champagne, coke, and other intoxicants. There's a big swimming pool, of course, into which a beautiful party girl called Cody (Abbey Lee) throws herself wearing a sequined gown. Several men, in evening clothes, of course, are eyeing Jo now and she commits adultery with a rich financial analyst from New York called Tom Day (Christopher Abbott, the go-for-broke star of James White, another example of the generally great casting). Tom gets to utter the quip about Morocco that "It feels like a country where a useless man could be happy." One of the upper level ksar staff is constantly spouting Moroccan proverbs: this film, like the novel, is oversupplied with such information, but a book can more tidily contain such things.

While David is out in the bled wondering if he's about to be stabbed to death, Jo is calming her nerves with champagne, cocaine, and Tom; the movie pumps the suspense, à la Hitchcock, by swinging back and forth between the two locations. There is also a lot of dialog between Richard and Dally, and nasty spoiled sybarites they are. On hand also is an annoying French journalist (Marie-Josée Croze) and a Lord Swanthorne (Alex Jennings), who arrives surrounded by a bevy of much younger women. Managing everything is the ksar's long-suffering major domo, Hamid (Mourad Zaoui).

Some other important "servants" emerge, especially Anouar (Saïd Taghmaoui), who bonds with the chastened, changed David. We also learn the desert is populated with Berbers who dig up fossils in the sane to sell to tourists. The big annual party is a major opportunity to do that, with a chance even to sell an "Elvis," a superstar fossil, worth a thousand euros. This was ostensibly what the boys were out on the dark road for. Scenes between David and the bereaved father are important, also between David and Anouar, who accompanies him. We may find deep meaning and irony in the various forms of punishment and forgiveness this story touches on, if we ponder. It's their presence that must have attracted Michael McDonagh to this, for him, dramatic change of scene.

The film clearly has some of the complexity of a novel. But while the Times review spoke of "how many heads" Osborne "manages to climb into" in the book we hardly climb into any this time. What we get to do is gaze upon the Tangier streets and cafes, the ksar, the desert road, the robes, the debauchery. This a visual experience and a big-screen film. I saw it on a small one though, and probably you will too.

John Michael McDonagh, the brother of playwright Martin McDonagh (of the 2008In Bruges), previously directed The Guard (2011), Calvary (2014) and War on Everyone (2017).

The Forgiven, 117 Mins., debuted at Toronto Sept. 11, 2021, showing at Sidney Jun. 10, 2022, Tribeca Jun. 14. Released in US theaters Jul. 1, 2022, and on VOD via Roadside Attractions and Vertical Entertainment from Jul. 15.

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