"Disgrace" *** (out of ****)
Warning: This review will contain spoilers throughout without proper warning. Do not read this review if you have not seen the movie.
Sometimes movies come along which simply frustrate you. It has nothing to do with the acting or script or even the directing. It is the heavy-handed message, the political leanings of the film. I usually tell people don't allow a film's politics to alter your view of a movie if it counters your own. I'm a big fan of Sean Penn's "Into the Wild" (2007) a movie which I disagree with every idea presented. Still, the movie is beautifully told, and I cannot deny that. I don't share Jean-Luc Godard's politics either but I acknowledge him as one of the great figures in cinema and do enjoy some of his films; "Tout va bien" (1972) and "Les Carabiniers" (1968).
So I'd be a hypocrite if I didn't extend the same generosity towards "Disgrace" (2009) a film which made my blood boil. The film however is consistent in its views and does follow its own logic to a fault. It has an extremely heavy-handed message it wants to present to us and goes to the extremes to get that point across.
In short the film is about "Liberal White Guilt", quite fitting in our Barack Obama world, where I'm sure many white liberals felt compelled to vote for Mr. Obama out of the idea, "it would be good for the country". The idea of having the nation's first black president would ease some of the sins of the past. If this makes sense to you, "Disgrace" will suite you very, very nicely.
"Disgrace" follows a professor, David Lurie (John Malkovich). He is in his 50s, thinks of himself as an educated man, has a great fondness for poetry, especially Bryon, which he is currently teaching his class. He finds himself attracted to a student, Melanie (Antoinette Engel), a student of mixed race. He abuses his position as professor and sleeps with the young girl. His actions are found out.
Given the title, "Disgrace" I assumed the disgrace applied to David and how the community would react to his actions. But it isn't so. You see, "Disgrace" takes place in South Africa, shortly after the apartheid. There is racial tension between blacks and whites. "Disgrace" has other ideas up its sleeve.
David must go before a school committee and explain his side of the story. He sees no need to. He pleads guilty and dismisses the process. The committee asks for a sincere apology. David doesn't feel like playing their games. He admits his wrong doing and leaves. Not only the school but Cape Town. He heads towards the country side to visit his daughter, Lucy (Jessica Haines) a lesbian who has recently broken up with her lover. As a result she is all alone. She has no guns, no fence, no means of protection. There is a black man however, Petrus (Eriq Ebouaney) who lives on her property and looks after her and her dog kennel.
These living conditions don't seem acceptable to David. And his worst fears suddenly come true. Three black men beat David and set him on fire and rape his daughter. After the incident Lucy refuses to get the police involved and file formal charges. It is later discovered one of the men knows Petrus, who was suspiciously absent that day. It is his brother-in-law. David feels it is time for Lucy to leave. But she doesn't want to even though she fears the men may return. But it would be impossible for her to leave. To make matters worst, Lucy discovers she is pregnant. She will not get an abortion because as she tells her father, "I am a woman. Do you think I hate children?" I have no idea what exactly that means but it is her explanation.
Lucy later decides she will sell the land to Petrus, who feels what happened to Lucy was a bad thing, but, it is over. Lucy is still alive, so it is time to move on. After Lucy sells the land she will become a tenant on her own property and will allow Petrus to "marry" her so he and his wife and the boy may take care of the baby.
You see my friends, the "disgrace" mentioned in the title refers to the disgrace white Africans have put blacks through. Lucy has decided to take on all of their sins. She doesn't press charges against the rape, allows the boy to live on the property, has the child, gives up her land, all in the hope her acts will somehow right a wrong. It would be good for the country.
The film is based on a novel written by J.M. Coetzee, who shares some traits of the lead character. Mr. Coetzee was born in South Africa and is an academic. He was/is anti-apartheid and gets that point across during the school committee scene with David's apology. He is also an animal rights activist (most liberals are). And animals play a part in "Disgrace". Lucy has a dog kennel. Her friend, Bev (Fiona Press) runs a shelter taking care of abandon dogs. We are suppose to take great pity on these animals.
A lot of people liked "Disgrace". New York Times film critic Stephen Holden put it on his "top ten" list for 2009, which was the main reason I had decided to see the movie in the first place. Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert gave the film 4 stars and called it one of the best films of the year (though he no longer makes a formal "top ten" list citing he simply likes too many movies). But these men are liberal. The film speaks their language. It is almost like a mirror feeding back to them their own views.
Now my dislike for the film will lead some extremely judgemental people to quickly decided my lack of praise for the film is due to my politics and you'll quickly label me a "conservative". Not so fast! What I object to is an almost simplistic nature of the film. It goes to such extremes to present these ideas. It over-sells itself. I don't mind a message movie but I do mind when the film hits me over the head with that message into submission.