Monday, November 9, 2009
Director: Steve Jacobs
Cast: John Malkovich, Jessica Haines
Antoinette Engels, Eriq Ebuoaney, Fiona Press
Like its leading character, "Disgrace" likes to think it works on different, supreme levels when it's usually just hiding its nature behind a facade.
Malkovich stars as David Lurie, a literature professor in Cape Town University, who starts an affair with one of his students (Engels).
He's discovered and forced to resign after he refuses to indulge the school's board with public humiliation (he does tell her from the start that he's willing to take the affair as far as he wishes).
The problem, which might go undetected by some, is that he's white, she's not and it's post apartheid South Africa.
After this he goes visit his daughter Lucy (Haines), she lives in a farm in the middle of nowhere with her dogs, a rifle-that's never been used-and Petrus (the magnificent Ebuoaney) a black man who bought some land from her property and has started to build a house.
David feels that this place isn't safe for his daughter and his notions become reality when one day they are attacked by three men who do unspeakable things to them.
After this event the movie turns into a facile attempt to try and rationalize Africa, the apartheid and the personal sins of the characters.
The problem is that director Jacobs never really knows where to draw the line between what is symbolic and what is not.
But really, you can't blame a movie that from the very start uses Lord Byron as a premonition (or is it an excuse?) of what will come to happen later on.
When describing Lucifer, Lurie tells his students that the poet described him as a creature who "doesn't rely on principles but on impulse and the source of his impulses is dark to him".
Therefore he becomes "a thing" who "lives among us, but is not one of us". With this poetic reading the movie tries to justify itself.
It also tries to impose upon us a moral dilemma as Lucy refuses to seek justice for what happened to her and the screenplay begins to compare it with what her father did with his student.
But how is consensual sex between two adults-despite the ethical student/teacher problem-any similar to brutal rape?
The movie tries to explain us this relation by pointing out how whites and blacks in Africa lived under different codes of morality. As if crimes can be justified by anthropology.
Perhaps they can be understood if one chooses to judge each culture by their own ideologies, but then what does this say of how we should perceive these characters?
Haines gives a very good performance even when she must convey someone who comes off looking irrational most of the time. The actress gives her the dignity necessary to make her undertake an unnecessary burden (is she atoning for the sins of her father or of the entire white race?) and she's good enough to avoid falling into the clichés that come included by making her character a lesbian (subjecting to the sexual will of men gives the plot forced gender role questioning).
The movie has good intentions, even when it tries too hard to be as cerebral as it is emotionally engaging and Malkovich gives one of his greatest performances as the sleazy, but deeply human, Lurie, but the truth is none of the characters seem to understand each other's choices, in the very same way the audience won't understand the movie's.