Originally published in Ecumenical News
A movie based on the life of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, titled The Forgiven that was panned by American critics earlier this year might face some unsympathetic reviews when it is released to South African cinemas next month.
The film, which will be released in South Africa on October 5, is based on Michael Ashton’s play The Archbishop and the Antichrist and is directed by Roland Joffe.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Tutu is an icon in South Africa after his role in the struggle against South Africa’s racist apartheid ideology.
In a statement Joffe said the drama would follow Tutu’s moral and intellectual “struggle with brutal murderer and member of a former apartheid-era hit squad Piet Blomfeld” played by Australian actor Eric Bana.
“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,” Bana said.
American actor Forest Whitaker plays the role of Tutu in the film but came under fire when a trailer for the film was released in March.
Social media users slammed Forest’s accent and lack of resemblance to Tutu and South African audiences are likely to be unconvinced by Australian Bana’s scratchy accent of a white racist bad man.
Whitaker was quoted as saying that filling Tutu’s shoes was challenging.
“I knew his laugh’ his sense of humor’ 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'” he said in an interview with Times Live.
Producers said that Whitaker was chosen because he had an understanding of South African history and had taken on a similar role in another movie before this fictionalized drama concerning Tutu’s early days as chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The movie was shot in Cape Town and features several scenes from the notorious Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison.
It is based on Michael Ashton’s play The Archbishop and the Antichrist in which the playwright collaborated on the screenplay with Joffe.
The film begins with a 1955-set prologue during the apartheid era and the setting changes to the post-apartheid, mid-1990s after Tutu was appointed to his position by then-President Nelson Mandela.
“The Forgiven is heavy-handed from its early texts explaining apartheid through its end credits,” critic Glenn Kenny wrote in The New York Times on March 5.
Kenny, however, is impressed by Whittaker’s take on the ever ebullient Tutu.
“Mr Whitaker does an extraordinary job not just of impersonation (he has the clergyman’s infectious laugh down pat), but also of showing the way the character thinks,” he writes.
‘Drab message movie’
Variety’s Guy Lodge was scathing saying: “South Africa’s momentous Truth and Reconciliation Commission continues to evade the film treatment it deserves in Roland Joffé’s drab message movie.”
He explains that it is 20 years since South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded.
“Anyone who was there at the time will remember the startling, sometimes sick-making, power of the testimonies and apologies that emerged through its broadcast hearings: It was an emotional rinse cycle that no film on the subject, least of all one made principally by outsiders, has fully managed to convey.”
Frank Scheck wrote in The Hollywood Reporter: “The Forgiven tackles its important political and social issues in an overly talky fashion. The film has its merits, but it represents a significant comedown for the director of such classics as The Mission and The Killing Fields.”
He wrote: “The jumbled interweaving of the different plotlines has the effect of making the narrative confusing and the pacing sluggish, although the final courtroom scene, featuring a charged appearance by the distraught mother of the missing girl, packs an undeniable emotional punch.”
The producers said Tutu has given his blessing to the production.