Forest Whitaker as Desmond Tutu in The Forgiven.

DIRECTOR: Roland Joffé

CAST: Forest Whitaker, Eric Bana, Jeff Gum, Pamela Nomvete, Terry Norton

RUNNING TIME: 120 minutes


RATING: Three stars

Making a film about a period that today still remains so painful to many people, coupled with portraying a living legend such as the likes of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, has to be a weighty undertaking. 

Director Roland Joffé is no stranger to films that deal with traumatic issues. "The Killing Fields" – his 1984 film about the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia – which, given its gruesome portrayal of a terrible era in the South-East Asian country, was a superbly directed film that tackled a period that still painfully and vividly lingers in the memory today. 

More than 20 years have passed since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) tried to bring a close to our dark past – of the horrors of apartheid. It’s admirable that Joffé has tackled this period of catharsis and of coming to terms with an era that for many still remains as raw and as traumatic today, as it did all those years ago. 

The legacy runs deep of those terrible truths. 

Based on Michael Ashton’s play The Archbishop and the Antichrist (the playwright collaborated on the screenplay with Joffé), it’s a fictionalised account of Tutu, who, as head of the TRC, had to confront those atrocities of apartheid – to “heal” the wounded country. 

Portraying Tutu offers an onerous challenge – the Arch is such a unique personality with a special brand of enduring charm, wittiness, gentleness and gentility. As the film opens and one catches the first glimpse of Forest Whitaker as Tutu, one feels almost sorry for him in taking on the role. 

Unfortunately, it all just feels wrong. One cannot do away firstly, with the physical dissimilarity – his height versus Tutu’s squatness, how he looks, and try as he might, his manner and mostly his rather awkward accent which is neither African nor American – neither here nor there. As the film is two hours long, he’s on for much of the time and while there are moments where he does consummately get across the dignity and compassion and inner struggle, it’s like you’re watching someone trying his damnedest to play the part rather than a total immersion. In this fictionalised account, the film follows Tutu from when he receives an almost uncharacteristically articulate letter from a former apartheid hit-squad member Piet Blomfeld, asking for clemency. 

Eric Bana is the one here who delivers the masterful performance – he plays Blomfeld as the devil incarnate although we can sense that deep within that terribly distraught soul there’s a soft spot waiting to be awakened. The film alternates largely between the visits to Pollsmoor prison and the sessions of the TRC. In a film that largely speaks for itself about the tragedy of the moment, oversentimentality abides. 

Tutu has given the film his blessing and is quoted, “This timely, compelling and intelligent film, movingly, and above all humanely, captures what it felt like to be working with members of the TRC.”