Review: 'Disgrace'

A spare, chilling post-apartheid tale of retribution that morphs into something more complex.

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

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    John Malkovich and Jessica Haines in DISGRACE, a film set in South Africa.
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In "Disgrace," the uneven but powerful new film based on the celebrated J.M. Coetzee novel, we are brought face to face with the phlegmatic, imperious David Lurie (John Malkovich), who teaches a course in Romantic poetry at a university in Cape Town, South Africa, and fancies himself something of a romantic as well. Others might more accurately label him a lech.

When he seduces an attractive mixed-race student, Melanie Isaacs (Antoinette Engel), and pursues her against her will, word gets out. Facing the university disciplinary committee, he refuses both to defend himself or formally apologize. Suddenly, and not altogether to his chagrin, his teaching career is over. Retreating to the vast, panoramic countryside and the farm occupied by his daughter Lucy (Jessica Haines), he expects the idyllic and ends up confronting fresh horrors. Three young black men invade the farm, viciously attack David, and rape Lucy (which we are spared from witnessing).

Like Coetzee's Booker Prize-winning 1999 novel, the film has a chilling spareness. The husband-wife team of director Steve Jacobs and screenwriter Anna-Maria Monticelli has been remarkably faithful not only to the novel's narrative but also to its tone of omnipresent dread. What at first seems like a metaphorical parable about racial retribution in post-apartheid South Africa mutates, inexorably, into something far more complicated. The power of the film, as with the novel, is that it can't be buttonholed ideologically.

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David is not merely the sacrificial white lamb of black revenge, and the revengers are not righteous. (In South Africa the book was criticized more by blacks than by whites.) If there is any character who can best be termed righteous it's Lucy, who refuses to press charges against her attackers and who is intent on remaining on her farm even if it means striking an uneasy bargain with the black man, Petrus (Eriq Ebouaney), whose property adjoins hers.

Lucy, beautifully played by Haines, is fiercely individual, and yet she also incarnates the spirit of white reconciliation in the new South Africa. She is both realist (in knowing what she must do to survive) and idealist (in believing that survival augurs a brighter future). The contrast between her and David, which is often played out as a series of dialogues, could not be sharper. David is not altogether wrong in wishing she would press charges and leave the farm. But his view of South Africa is, literally, black and white, and far more conflicted than hers. He patronizes black prostitutes, sics a vicious dog on a black man he believes to be one of the rapists, and, in a bout of self-recrimination, kneels before Melanie's unforgiving family to ask for forgiveness. He volunteers at a clinic for sick animals waiting to be euthanized, and at times he, too, seems like an endangered mongrel.

Malkovich's South African accent is wayward, and his trademark spaciness, which can seem demonic, doesn't always jibe with David's lady's-man reputation. But there is also a seething intelligence to Malkovich that is expertly exploited by the filmmakers. You can believe that this man is a professor and that he is both strenuously in control of his life and hopelessly lost.

The film is fashioned as a series of harrowing contrasts: The majesty of the landscape clashes with the obscenities happening within it. Demons morph into angels, and back again. Rape leads to rebirth. As fiercely unsentimental as "Disgrace" is, it offers by the end a measure of hope, and because that hope is so hard-won, it has the ring of truth. Grade: B+•

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