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Review: It’s no privilege to watch Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain bicker in ‘The Forgiven’

Jessica Chastain in "The Forgiven."
(Sife Elamine)

Halfway through “The Forgiven” — a fussy dark comedy nestled in a sedated yet grim spiritual journey — David (Ralph Fiennes) visits the village of the Morroccan kid he murdered with his car a few days earlier. While David sulks in his victim’s humble home, his wife Jo (Jessica Chastain) parties at a lavish desert villa just a few miles away, surrounded by the bitchy elite. This is a movie that wants to skewer the rich in two ways: through David’s facing his distasteful actions and his hedonistic friends revealing their worst selves. Neither tones ever cohere.

Adapted from Lawrence Osborne’s same-titled novel, in the early going, writer-director John Michael McDonagh’s sleepy satire, “The Forgiven” reminds one of Roberto Rossellini’s “Journey to Italy.” The curmudgeon David, an alcoholic doctor recently sued by a patient for a botched diagnosis, and his younger wife Jo, a children’s book writer, bicker their way through a road trip to the luxe villa of their wealthy friend Richard (Matt Smith) and his loud, spoiled boyfriend Dally (Caleb Landry Jones).

Searching for Richard’s isolated home, the couple drive aimlessly through the Sahara. As David speeds around a dusty curve, a local boy named Driss (Omar Ghazaoui) jumps into the road and is killed by David’s car. When they arrive at Richard’s place, Jo is shaken; David is detached, nearly angered by the inconvenience. Though Richard pays off the local police, the boy’s father appears the next day. In order to atone, he requests that David accompany the boy’s body to be buried in their village while Jo remains behind. Faced with few options, David ignores the dangers — in his disgusting words: “They could be ISIS” — and relents.

Through this tragedy McDonagh aims to elucidate the callousness of colonialism: It’s telling that Richard’s other guests — a jaded French photographer (Marie-Josée Croze), a British Lord (Alex Jennings) and a philandering American financial analyst (Christopher Abbott) who eyes Jo — reside in countries with imperialist pasts. The local servants overhear their tasteless conversations concerning the bestiality of Moroccans; they witness these debased white folks consume their cultural food and artifacts as they toss around nasty barbs (thankfully the servants do get small bits of revenge). For those who enjoy viciousness, the scenes may offer a biting, cathartic release. To others, the runway for such diatribes will be short.

Ralph Fiennes and Matt Smith in "The Forgiven."
(Sifeddine Elamine)
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David and Jo’s verbally combative relationship adds to the barbed tone, but Fiennes and Chastain feel as though they’re acting in different movies. He’s a stiff-upper-lip Brit and she’s aping Monica Vitti in Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Red Desert.” The two styles create a kind of friction, which work in tandem, but struggle to catch fire in scenes where they’re apart, particularly for recent Oscar winner Chastain.

She’s stuck at the party, which plays as background to David’s repentant sojourn through an alluring yet decaying desert landscape. His gruff exterior begins to fade as he learns more about Driss through his grieving father (a visceral Ismael Kanater). The family subsidizes their income by digging for fossils in the desert and selling them to the West. There’s a blood diamond aspect to this economic system that favors the poverty stricken populace risking their lives to sell off their natural treasures to conniving Westerners. And a sober David begins to see his own role.

While “The Forgiven” isn’t concerned with making David a better person — rather to get him to fully grasp his guilt — McDonagh’s methods can’t distinguish the film from the long list of stories about white folks learning lessons at the expense of brown people. There may have been higher ideals in mind, but “The Forgiven” fails to gracefully reach them.

'The Forgiven'

Rating: R, for language throughout, drug use, some sexual content and brief violence

Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes

Playing: In general release July 1


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