Having looked the beast of the past in the eyes, having asked and received forgiveness…let us shut the door on the past – not to forget it – but to allow it not to imprison us.
– Archbishop Desmond Tutu, South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission
A haggard, visibly distracted, and apprehensive middle-aged man and former police officer named Tertius Coetzee, carrying only a suitcase and an ample assortment of prescription medication that have been haphazardly accumulated in the passenger seat of his cluttered automobile, drives mechanically through the dusty, isolated roads that lead to the rural South African fishing village of Paternoster (literally, Our Father) and checks into a hotel on the outskirts of town. With the reluctant assistance of the local parish priest, Coetzee has asked to meet the equally apprehensive Grootboom family whose eldest (and perhaps, favorite) son, a university student and apartheid-era activist named Daniel had been tortured and killed ten years earlier by Coetzee and his colleagues during interrogation, concealing his execution by staging his death as a random carjacking. The elder Grootbooms politely accept the stranger’s presence in their home and offer of condolences, reluctant to ask questions on the unimaginable horror surrounding the circumstances of Daniel’s death and, in their awkward, suffering silence, perhaps tacitly encouraging Coetzee to promptly leave, unable to bear the sight of their son’s killer and the memory of their unreconciled tragedy. But the Grootboom’s children seem less tolerant of the seemingly troubled and penitent Coetzee’s presence in their humble community – their youngest son Ernst physically attacks him without provocation and their daughter Sannie ventures out to place a covert call to Daniel’s best friend, alerting him of Coetzee’s arrival at Paternoster and planting the idea that he assemble his band of former radicals to ambush Coetzee in retaliation for her brother’s death. Receiving instruction to keep Coetzee in town until Daniel’s friends arrive the next day, Sannie decides to invite Coetzee into their home against the strong objection of her still grieving parents, ostensibly under the pretense of hearing the explicit details of her brother’s suppressed history of militant resistance (an involvement that included perpetrating acts of sabotage) that inevitably lead to his death. However, when Coetzee’s assassins fail to show up at the appointed hour, the Grootboom children soon find themselves orchestrating additional meetings between Coetzee and their parents under the ruse of working towards reconciliation and finding common ground in order to keep him from leaving town and escaping retribution. Set in the aftermath of the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, Ian Gabriel’s film is an articulate, provocative, and haunting examination of the complex and integrally soul-searching nature of forgiveness: both from the perspective from those who seek it, and from those of whom it is asked. Featuring a strong lead cast, a poignant and compelling script, and emotionally engaging, multi-dimensional characters, Forgiveness is a compassionate, elegantly humanist, and intrinsically spiritual portrait of guilt, atonement, reconciliation, and personal closure.
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