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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

DISGRACE -- DVD review by porfle

A quietly troubling film on first viewing, DISGRACE (2008) just keeps getting more perplexing and, well, messed-up the more I think about it. Although definitely well-made and well-acted, it nevertheless seems to have left me feeling cranky and generally bummed out.

John Malkovich plays David Lurie, a bland and ineffectual poetry teacher in a South African college, who yearns for human contact but seems unable to engage anyone on an emotional level so he settles for indulging his urgent sexual cravings instead. This compels him to maneuver his way into an affair with a pretty young student, Melanie (Antoinette Engel). While she is increasingly reluctant to continue, his obsession with her grows until he finally gets himself kicked out of his job in--you guessed it--disgrace.

David's lesbian daughter Lucy (Jessica Haines) lives on a small farm in the country, so he decides to move in with her for awhile and volunteers to help out at the animal clinic that's run by Lucy's friend Bev (Fiona Press), where he helps euthanize and incinerate unwanted dogs. Also living on the farm is a black man named Petrus (Eriq Ebouaney) who's building a house for his new wife and her family to move into. One day when Petrus is away, three black youths attack and terrorize David and Lucy, raping her and almost burning David alive. When the identity of one of the attackers is revealed, David is shocked to find that Lucy refuses to prosecute.

Well, since this story takes place in post-apartheid South Africa, neither David nor Lucy can make a move without having the specter of collective white guilt hanging over their heads at every turn. I'm not sure if the script is telling us that this is unfair, or if we're supposed to agree with the notion. Lucy, a gentle soul who just wants to be left alone, seems to accept the idea that getting raped and beaten by these three thugs is the price she must pay in order to get along with Petrus and the rest of the community, and in a larger sense help make amends for the injustices committed by white South Africans in the past.

Moreover, she seems to liken her violent rape with David's sexual relationship with Melanie. True, he was an authority figure taking unfair advantage of a student, but she wasn't forced into their relationship and was free to leave it at any time. When Lucy accuses David of being like her attackers--a typical predatory male--and worse, when David starts to believe it himself, I really had to wonder what this movie was actually trying to tell me. In addition to this, a major development which occurs later on and the manner in which Lucy chooses to deal with it led me to the inescapable conclusion that her character is a blooming idiot.

Director Steve Jacobs renders all of this with a very austere and well-ordered style. Early events unfold in an almost placid cause-and-effect way that leaves the viewer unprepared for the down-and-dirty shock of the attack sequence and its increasingly troubling aftermath. Jacobs' non-sensational style gives the film a sun-blanched realism that's almost mundane, and he creates a sense of unease by building tension gradually rather than in bold strokes. Malkovich is perfect as the self-styled Byronic outcast who's forced to question his own principles, while Jessica Haines, Eriq Ebouaney, and the rest of the cast are fine.

The DVD from Image Entertainment is in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound with English and Spanish subtitles. Extras include cast and crew interviews, a "making of" featurette, and a trailer.

Does DISGRACE really want us to believe that whites in South Africa should submit to random abuse--to take on the disgrace of their people--in order to make amends for apartheid? Surely not. Is it warning us that they're no longer able to safely go about their lives as rightful members of the community without being terrorized by newly-empowered blacks? I'm not sure how I'm supposed to interpret this story or the motives and behavior of some of the characters, and I really don't care to. The film eventually ends on a note of quiet resignation which I found utterly dispiriting.

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