Judge Mina Rhodes forgives this film for lacking much power of its own.
"I think you can forgive a little, you can forgive all the way, or you cannot forgive at all."
Documentarian Martin Doblmeier's The Power of Forgiveness is a moderately interesting hour-long PBS special padded out to feature length (incidentally, it later became an hour-long PBS special, and is still being broadcast as such on many local viewer supported stations). It is also a propaganda film with an unusual subject at its slanted core: the one of the title, naturally. Funded by the Fetzer Institute, as part of its Campaign for Love and Forgiveness, and by The John Templeton Foundation (which contributes to Intelligent Design research—a tip-off that what you are getting with this film probably isn't based in any kind of real science), the film stands not so much as an actual, scientifically-focused exploration of human behavior when confronting offenses, but as a scattershot, new age-y work in the vein of What the Bleep Do We Know?!
The film assembles a sizable lot of talking heads, each representitive of some kind of religion or social order: Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel (Judaism!), Thich Nhat Hanh (Buddhism!), Azim Khamisa (Islam!), and Rev. James Forbes (Christianity!), as well as friend-of-Oprah Marianne Williamson, and spiritual self-help author Thomas Moore (Roman Catholic and a psychotherapist!), in addition to various other interviewees with names not prestigious enough to slap on the box art. All chime in with the eye-opening observation that forgiveness is good, while offering up tidy soundbytes that the film's website showcases in willowy font. Their pseudo-philosophical musing is unenlightening; each delivers much the same message, but influenced by their own belief system and/or experiencing. Occasionally, someone who doesn't sell books, such as mere normal people who have been faced with various violence, tragedies, sexual assaults, etc, offer up their opinions; some even admit that there are conditions and limits to their capacity for forgiveness, as is only humanly natural. It is these segments, such as those detailing a schoolhouse shooting in an Amish community, and a class in Ireland that teaches Catholic and Protestant children the concept of forgiveness in school to try and ease the violent conflict between the opposing sects, which lend the film its stretches of real interest.
For much of its runtime, The Power of Forgiveness is inoffensive and pleasant in its hopeful message. Genuine moments of pathos sometimes arise from the situations brought to light, and to see the plight of those struggling and coping with, and eventually forgiving the causors of their traumas is touching. It is when the film moves away from real-life situations, into its sections of mysticizing and romanticizing forgiveness, where it begins to crash and burn. Now, thinking logically, one can easily deduce that coming to terms with a traumatic event and moving on with one's life will, of course, be theraputic. The Power of Forgiveness cops to the ludicrous notion that forgiving someone or something has miraculous health benefits, while denying forgiveness is bad, bad, bad—as if there are no other ways to move on with one's life successfully. The meagre "facts" offered up are of the same transparent, unpersuasive, unconvincing nature used to support Intelligent Design (remember the film's funders!) and other religion-supported attempts at legitimizing faith with bastardzed scientific "evidence." To its credit, the film's cross-section of different religions's views on forgiveness is a good, balanced idea, and keeps it from pandering to one certain demographic, but it also lands it squarely in the trite ranks of other "spiritual living" films available wherever insence, yoga mats, and overpriced, all-natural organic soy muffins are sold.
Some skillful filmmaking could have saved The Power of Forgiveness from such a mediocre fate, but that is not the case. Doblemeier apparently spent almost two years making the film, but it all seems to have been spent hopping around the globe on a small budget. From a visual perspective, the film falls into that dreaded deathtrap untold thousands of documentaries have succombed to and decayed in before it: simply put, it looks flat, cheap, and combined with the already limited subject matter, it becomes terminally dull. The music too adds little to the overall presentation, and is occasionally annoyingly cliche (we're in Ireland—cue some Celtic jig on the soundtrack!). The Power of Forgiveness is completely standard in its cinematic presentation, and this continues over to First Run Features's presentation of it on DVD.
The Power of Forgiveness's original theatrical aspect ratio is preserved, but the film is not anamorphically enhanced; not that it is really a problem with this kind of film, which feels more like a television special more than anything actually belonging on a theatre screen, but First Run is perfectly capable of turning out fine anamorphic transfers, so the fact they opted not to with this release is slightly annoying. The video quality itself is acceptable—not that a cheap documentary could ever look all that great, but the picture quality here is soft and unremarkable; though considering the type of feature presented, it is not so much of an issue. The audio is a standard English stereo track, which, like the video, is of adequate television broadcast quality.
Extras include a "short film" called One More Thought, which really just appears to be some deleted scenes lumped together into a featurette (offering little of worth), an interview with Doblemeier about the film, a speech by South African activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu about, of course, forgiveness. Finally, there are some trailers for other titles from First Run Features, and packaged inside the amaray case is one of the company's little catalogue booklets, which weighs about as much as a hefty phonebook, and uses just as much paper (I kid, I kid).
Perhaps my heart is too hardened and cynical to open up to The Power of Forgiveness. Or maybe I just fail to be moved by mediocre documentaries that belong between pledge drives on public access channels (where The Power of Forgiveness currently lives, in justly truncated form). Whatever the case may be, First Run Features provides an equally mediocre DVD befitting the film, but they are acquited, for really, the film does not require much more. The Power of Forgiveness itself, sadly, is not forgiven. Guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
• Desmond Tutu Speaks at the Washington National Cathedral
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