The acting gives those scenes potency, and veteran director Roland Joffe (The Killing Fields) whips up a political thriller/prison flick/award-baiting melodrama gumbo around them. Set in South Africa in the mid-1990s, when Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was cracking down on apartheid’s most reprehensible players, the movie has the archbishop looking for a missing girl while occasionally facing off with the amnesty-seeking Blomfield. Meanwhile, Blomfield tries to stay alive amid the angry minorities and corrupt guards who populate his prison, all as he wonders if he should do something positive before it’s too late. (People who didn’t dig Sam Rockwell’s redemptive arc in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri will not like this at all.)
It’s all heavily fictionalized (Blomfield is not a real person), but the scenes between Whitaker and Bana suggest that it would’ve been fascinating seeing a man of God go toe to toe with the personification of evil that has plagued his homeland for so long. Unfortunately, this movie has so many damn things percolating all through it that it ultimately seems unfocused and painfully earnest. In the end, The Forgiven does something I never thought I’d see: It turns a Nobel Peace Prize–winning holy man into Columbo.