Toti O’Brien: Otherness
Image: Unsplash, downloaded (https://unsplash.com/photos/HJSIZsC4te8) 17.12.2022.
BENEATH DESERT SAND
(in and out McDonagh’s The Forgiven)
I have immensely enjoyed John Michael McDonagh last feature, The Forgiven 1, essentially for two reasons, both setting the movie aside from a number of films on similar topics.
Reason number one operates from the start, and it regards the way the film treats otherness. The story (inspired by Lawrence Osborn’s bestseller novel) deals with British and American upper-class gathering for a party in the Moroccan desert. Hosts and guests reunite in a refurbished castle. Waiting staff and house helpers are obviously hired on site. Therefore, two cultures—Anglo and local—are juxtaposed. Truly, things are a bit more complex. As I said, the hosts/guests are British and American—dialogues highlight discrepancies in lifestyles, reciprocal assumptions and prejudices. “Locals” are Moroccans and Berbers—a separate ethnic group, somehow alien and mysterious to the Moroccans themselves.
This kind of subjacent quadrophenia creates language ambiguity—a subtle one, quasi invisible. What the characters say sounds logical, relatively clear (even when they exchange suave witticisms or they cryptically pronounce Arab proverbs). They seem to reasonably understand each other. Later, though, words linger, bounce back—and we are no more sure of their meaning. As the story unravels, the characters aren’t either. But this is a diversion, leading a bit too soon to my second reason.
Back to otherness and how it is depicted. The director being Irish-British, the others are the North Africans. He depicts them well, as much as can be done by an external gaze, in the context of a work that is fictional and not documentary. The rendition is, in fact, way more documented than average. Not only it isn’t disparaging or diminishing—it also isn’t romanticized or naïf, which would amount to another form of disparage. It is careful, respectful in the literal meaning of the word—which is “observing,” “observant”—as far as I, a Westerner, can tell.
Both the personnel working at the house and the Berbers (coming from their village to claim the body of a boy that one of the visitors accidentally killed) are multifaceted individuals carrying specific weight. They are 3D, so to speak—a rarity, as the usual representation of otherness, no matter if unconsciously negative or deliberately positive, unavoidably flattens. When it flatters, it flattens as well. But not in this case.
Some reviewers have remarked that McDonagh could be accused, instead, of artificially flattening the Anglo element in his movie’s microcosm. Revelers at the party are so cliché, they get boring. I have thought about this. On one hand, I have pictured, recalled, reconstructed as many as those parties as possible. During a lifetime, we all have attended a few, no matter in which function—“respectful observing” is free from all vintage points. Well, those functions are exactly as shown, the guests just as shallow, and increasingly so as the hour and alcohol grow upon them. Each could be a “nuanced” person, either before or after. But nuances are party-poopers, and they are left at the door. Those feasts are the apotheosis of fatuity. They are made for drowning rules and concerns, and much money is spent for such purpose. People aren’t nice at those parties—in fact, they reach their nastiest in those very limbos of indemnity.
On the other hand, the party section of The Forgiven functions a bit like a theater backdrop. Something in it flirts with the surreal/grotesque. The location is so kitsch, so fake, it reminds of a theme park. McDonagh interweaves scenes from the castle and shots from the desert, where one of the guests is traveling towards the remote Berber hamlet. This is the Sahara. The intensity and heft of nature—beautifully shot—is almost unbearable. Intermittent bites of shallowness might be needed in order to metabolize such a landscape, contemplate the kind of life it implies.
One more thought about the contrast between Westerners and locals. Yes, it’s jarring. Partially, because of what we already noted: locals are better represented than usual and Westerners are shown as they are—un-farded, in spite of their fancy attires. But it’s interesting to me how, when two cultures meet, race, language and ethnic matters take the spotlight while class—which is probably the most powerful determiner—slips into the blind spot. Almost always, the gap between two groups is cleaved and made unbridgeable by the dead-weight of the class element, which fatally sinks the boat. The Forgiven puts side by side people tempered for millennia by the fiercest nature, taught by sheer necessity, used to thrive on nothing and treasure crumbs, people who have learned all of life lessons first hand, savvy of the laws of time and space, death and survival, folks of resistance and resilience, and perfectly “useless” members of society only apt to manipulate currency in this or that direction. It isn’t a fair equation. Yorkshire farmers, coal-miners of the Ozarks (if they were invited) would have certainly stood the comparison.
The other reason why I was awed by this movie is the use that McDonagh makes of the title—how the word “forgiven” ripples in waves, tracing concentric circles, how it mirror itself like a Rorschach card, back and forth.
David is a guest who has travelled from the UK (the film opens with he and his wife staring at their port of arrival from the boat, sighing out loud the word “Africa”). While driving towards the party, in nighttime, he hits and kills a Berber boy suddenly appeared on the road. It’s an accident. The local police understand. The day after, though, the father of the victim arrives with two co-villagers to claim his son’s body. Is that all? Does he, do they want something else? Money should do, though David is reluctant to spend on the matter more than is really needed. Is anything needed? The police have agreed. It was an accident.
David (Ralph Fiennes) is a man no one likes—neither his wife (on the verge of divorcing him) nor the hosts (regretful of having invited him) nor any of the guests, often glossing on his disagreeability, trying to recall why they used to know him. Some, indeed, knew him since when he was student—bit of a trouble maker and a lefty, which sounds paradoxical seen his present intolerant, arrogant snobbishness. A sparse, lacey narrative about D’s past runs throughout the movie. It sounds like a prelude to catharsis. He had ideals, perhaps, and he lost them. This might be the occasion for him to recuperate them.
Catharsis hovers above the movie like a Damocle’s sword until the very end. But, at least in my opinion, it doesn’t fall. If it does, the thump is almost inaudible.
David is so nasty, he’s actually poisonous. Truly, his petulance brushes the implausible, and yet Fiennes’ acting is so sharp that nothing feels forced about his character. We believe him. Not only. We can both see the cracks of his thick unpleasantness—the rigidity, poor social skills, isolation, fragility—and catch its undertones—deep-seated bitterness and self-hatred. Disappointment? Disillusion? More than that. Despair will do.
He casually mentions a situation at home—a trial, or so, someone being about to die of skin tumors he misdiagnosed, or is there money behind it. Is it negligence, is it incompetence, is it fraud. Is he going to lose. What is he going to lose. That is left unsaid and it could be just the tip of an iceberg.
Despair will do.
The boy’s father request is for D to go to the village and attend the burials. D accepts. Somehow, that is when the movie starts, the rest being a prelude. We understand the film is a private affair between these two men—the father, the killer; the maker, the un-maker; the origin, the end. All the rest, though very well wrought, is context.
When the journey begins, the desert—as I mentioned before—becomes visually prominent and so haunting, so powerful, it dwarves everything else. For the viewer and, of course, for D. We are, he is sucked by a magnetic pull into a world so elemental, so ancient, other mundane scenarios instantaneously fade. As the car moves towards the village (the travels will take several days), the power balance changes. The Berbers are no more figurines out of a nativity scene cast against Western glamour. Now in familiar territory, they move with ease. One of them—smart, nice, funny and amicable—speaks fluent English with David.
The father is more contained, and still acts with courtesy, calm, civility. Only when arrived home he starts, out of the blue, to speak English. As he and David sit face to face in his house, in apparently peaceful conversation, perhaps it dawns on D that he’s met his peer, his mirror, his opponent, his fate.
The movie is their meeting—all the rest is context.
Fiennes and Ismael Kanater, who plays Abdullah, the father, are fantastic in their body language, their faces so expressive one could turn the sound off, cut subtitles, just watch. All that happens is told by fine shifts of features, by what the eye conveys, by the play of tiny, delicate muscles.
That is why a marvelous ambiguity dominates the second half of the movie—what is said in words ricochets against a layered mimic narrative that tells so much more. Not only, that often seems to baffle, contradict, confound what language asserts.
Kanater has at least three different faces. Perhaps, four. Perhaps, five. One is the firm, impenetrable, sad-but-not-desperate, matter-of-fact façade he wears for public interactions. The second face appears more than once, quick as lightning, when he catches a lie or understands something crucial—his eyes narrow into slits, become piercing like thorns, injected with cold, frightening power. The third face—more supple, distended, more permeable—only emerges when he speaks English with David. The fourth face is seen when he unexpectedly sheds his turban, exposing his bold head, his large neck, and we meet a much younger person, much more vital.
The fifth face is the still point where the movie briefly converges—is the fugitive moment that holds the whole in place, like a point d’orgue in music, the vanishing point of a landscape. It’s the face he dons when he is finally alone, and he buries his child. All the other faces fall. Finally, he can be with his naked pain.
David travels to the village, eats goat, is offered a quarter of apple of which Abdullah eats the rest, is forbidden of drinking from the same cup because he is impure, is explained at length and in eloquent fashion the life of the village, what they have (fossils to sell to Westerners and their children), what they don’t have (a future, except for their children who, by selling fossils, might be able to go elsewhere and thrive), is told that Driss (the dead boy) stole the most expensive fossil from his father, that day, hoping to sell it by stopping tourist cars on the road, then go to Casablanca, look for a better life), that Driss was an only son, mom died long ago, etcetera, spends a night in the boy’s room (there is no other place), is asked to lock himself in and obeys, sleeps in the boy’s bed, learns that the boy was buried. Then, he’s escorted back.
He says several times, while replying to Abdullah, to others, that he’s sorry. Perhaps he is. All seems so irrelevant at this point. He has carried along a reasonable sum, expecting to be asked to pay a kind of indemnity. He brings it back, ultimately and awkwardly giving it to the driver, who awkwardly accepts it.
We know that, after the accident, he has searched the boy and buried his ID under the sand. We know that the boy’s young mate, who was at the scene, has informed Abdullah. We know Abdullah has scolded the mate for having fled the scene and done nothing. Then, he has given him the gun his son had taken together with the fossil, that morning. Then, he has made him solemnly promise he’d do exactly what needs to be done.
We know more than David—at least consciously—knows, and still we get caught within his uncertainty when he keeps asking to the Berber driver if he’s sure that Abdullah has forgiven him. The reply is affirmative, if tentative, comforting if vague. “He heard that you are sorry. He believes you are sincere.” D asks the Moroccan servants the same question, gathering similar replies, “He has understood you are a honorable man.”
Though we have the information, we are caught into the ambiguity of what David wants, what he apprehends. Why does he become more and more frantic and frail, like a child insistently asking “are we there yet?” Is it the aftershock? Does he fear for his life? Can’t he believe the nightmare is over and nothing was asked of him? Can he accept it?
When about to go to the Berber village, he had asked his wife why she thought they wanted him there, on what purpose. “They want closure,” she had said. “Don’t we all?” he had added.
He, for one, certainly did, but was left without it, and that he cannot bear.
What does forgiving the guy who killed your son mean? It is hard to honestly reply. About forgiving in general? Does it mean anything at all? Let go, that is what we usually attempt to do. Put it all behind us. Try not to balance evil with evil, create pain in order to cancel pain, as pain only adds on. It makes sense. But what is about this word, for-give? Give what, and for what? Does “for” mean “in exchange”? Like an eye for an eye? But isn’t that the opposite of forgiveness? Like a life for a life? Like, sacrifice the life of a man who has done wrong to compensate for the loss of a life still to be spent, a life seeking to live? Perhaps, this is what the father deemed fair, or just unavoidable. Perhaps the order of things couldn’t be restored if not by bartering the loss of an only-future, only-lineage, only-hope-of-survival life with the elimination of a damaging, dangerous, “useless” life.
(“Useless” is a word that guests at the party keep using in order to complaisantly self-define. It bounces around, hitting them in random fashion).
Does David pine for that kind of forgiveness? Why? The beauty of the movie is that his death drive stays ambiguous, ambivalent, as it normally does. It is there, in his heavy drinking, since the start, but alcohol is a slow and devious path, allowing stops and U turns. When he leaves for the village, David (consciously or not) chooses the fast track. He knows he will arrive. He wants closure.
When he gets back, he is afraid he might have been forgiven instead. Wait. He’s afraid he might not. Be forgiven. Given for. Get closure. The ambivalence is wonderful—if hard—to behold, because it is true.
I have said the movie is a dual affair—two meaningful characters caught into a quiet, crucial confrontation where mercy and revenge mix and mingle, never entirely showing their face. The two main actors have equal stature. They both complement and contrast each other for a powerful outcome.
It is interesting, then, to remark how media and reviews present the movie—how the actors are listed and paired, who is mentioned, who isn’t, what type of attention/coverage is given to whom.
Whenever a couple is mentioned, that is Jessica Chastain and Ralph Fiennes. The pairing itself is bizarre. Yes, they are married in the movie, but the story isn’t about their relationship. Conflicts and dynamics revolve around another pair: the father, the killer. Though, of course, Chastain is great, her involvement is collateral. She is marvelous as she animates a side story, a very large cameo. So are other great actresses/actors who are credited and praised in detail. Which is fair, as the entire cast deserves it. Kanatar is listed at various distances from the top, depending, but never too close. His acting is very seldom mentioned.
This misplacement is fascinating—though not surprising—because of its meta-filmic valence, as if contents of a movie always tended somehow to spill out and tinge its reception, the response of public and press.
All throughout the movie, there’s a kind of ritual, kind of joke about the boy’s name. Early on. David keeps repeating, “the boy is a nobody,” trying to justify his intent of covering up the whole thing. Everyone says “the boy” but, at regular intervals, as if it were choreographed, someone interjects, “Driss. His name was Driss.”
The burial of the identity papers, obviously, is a pivotal point. “They all do it,” says Abdullah when it learns about it. Still, the denial of identity seems to add an ominous weight to the actual killing. It repeats the killing. Deliberately.
See how things reverberate out of the script. See how denial (at least, neglect) is endless.
1 John Michael McDonagh, The Forgiven, 2021
About the Author: Toti O’Brien is the Italian Accordionist with the Irish Last Name. Born in Rome, living in Los Angeles, she is an artist, musician and dancer. She is the author of Other Maidens (BlazeVOX, 2020), An Alphabet of Birds (Moonrise Press, 2020), In Her Terms (Cholla Needles Press, 2021), Pages of a Broken Diary (Psky’s Porch, 2022) and Alter Alter (Elyssar Press, 2022).