Netflixable? Whitaker and Bana face off in the South African-set “The Forgiven”

The problem with film titles is that they’re not protected by copyright. It’s not unheard of to have films with the same title roll out in the same year, confusing viewers and muddying the chances of either film finding its audience.

There’s a new British film that premiered in the Toronto Film Festival this year to some fanfare, which considering John Michael McDonagh (“The Guard,””Calvary”) adapted it for the screen, and Oscar winner Ralph Fiennes, along with Jessica Chastain, Matt Smith and Caleb Landry Jones star in it, is to be expected.

That isn’t the film titled “The Forgiven” that’s just popped up on Netflix. This is the well-intentioned character drama about South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and features Oscar winner Forest Whitaker doing an empathetic and impassioned interpretation of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, squaring off with Eric Bana as a “psychopathic” SSA (state security police) cop, a convicted mass murderer, in infamous Pollsmoor Prison.

Roland Joffé of “The Killing Fields” and “The Mission” directed this somewhat staid, uneven and generally downbeat drama. Its centers of action are Tutu’s navigating the treacherous personal and political currents outside that prison, where his fact-finding and public testimony interrogations are under fire from veterans of the just-ended Apartheid regime in South Africa, and inside the prison, where one of the most notorious inmates, Piet Blomfeld (Bana) has baited him with a feigned interest in “forgiveness.”

Blomfeld’s spitting fury, f-bombs and racist slurs reveal that he has more interest in enflaming the racial hatred that anchored his belief system than in any “biased” reconciliation. It’s all Tutu can do to get him to stop calling him “boy,” even if turning that to a more pious “father” seems out of reach.

But the Archbishop has weeping parents like Mrs. Morobe (Thandi Makhubele, terrific) begging for closure, “just a bone” from her missing “disappeared” child, and fellow commissioners (Terry Norton) seeking details of something called “Operation Hacksaw.” If the Nobel laureate Tutu can appeal to this man’s “humanity,” maybe Blomfeld can be redeemed, at least in part.

There are plenty of still-serving, still-intimidating state police like Hansi Coetzee (Morné Visser) who don’t want that can of worms opened. And with Blomfeld in a prison population where murderous gangs are just waiting for a target to take out, the clock may be ticking on this “offer.”

Whitaker’s impersonation is quite good, considering the size difference between the diminutive Tutu (5’4″) and himself. Facial prosthetics and a wig help. But a great actor goes beyond that and mimicking a voice to get at the man’s innate decency and compassion.

How can I pray for her when I don’t know what happened?” he pleads to Blomfeld, seeking answers about the woman’s missing child even after his reasoning — “We either learn to live together in this country, or we die together in this country” — fails.

Bana plays Blomfeld as a curled fist, deaf to reason or compassion, hatred driving his every action.

The scenes concerning the often fractious meetings and hearings of the commission, covered in the earlier drama “In My Country,” are rather drab when compared to their one-on-one confrontations. And the prison scheming and violence is standard issue prison thriller stuff, nothing new to see there, either.

Far more interesting is the less-developed side of this story, the actual rounding up of clues, digging for mass graves and facing police intimidation pretty much every step of the way on the country’s march towards the truth. And the film’s prologue, setting up our story in the distant past, showing one character’s disappearance and another’s formative childhood moment, is solid and gripping.

Joffé and his film’s intent are beyond reproach, but his patient, stolid storytelling style, emphasizing character over action here, kind of sucks the life out of the movie, something the occasional Whitaker vs. Bana fireworks cannot compensate for.

This “Forgiven” isn’t the even more obscure African film from 2016, and it’s not the Moroccan tale that McDonagh, Fiennes and Chastain have in store for us. And sad to say this one isn’t epic or memorable enough to merit other filmmakers fleeing from that title in the near future.

In other words, more confusion and “Forgivens” are coming until that happens.

Rating: R for disturbing/violent content, and language throughout including some sexual references

Cast: Forest Whitaker, Eric Bana, Terry Norton, Morné Visser, Thandi Makhubele

Credits: Directed by Roland Joffé, scripted by Michael Ashton and Roland Joffé. A Saban Films/Lionsgate production on Netflix.

Running time: 2:00

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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