A harsh tale of post-apartheid South Africa
‘Disgrace’’ is an ugly movie, at times torturous to watch. It probably needs to be. Any movie set in South Africa is, by default, about South Africa, and this one, based on a prize-winning novel by J.M. Coetzee, barely bothers to disguise its symbolism. It’s a harsh experience, at times engrossing, at other times stiff and unconvincing, but it asks a necessary question: What happens to the country’s whites after white rule is gone?
Since John Malkovich is standing in for the Afrikaaners, we’re already in Bizarro World to some extent. He plays David Lurie, a Cape Town university professor whose sense of decadent entitlement brings him down. David has coerced a mixed-race student (Antoinette Engel) into having sex with him - ignoring her unease, he simply takes her as his due - and eventually he is exposed, called to judgment, and forced to resign.
He accepts this turn of events with a sigh that acknowledges that times have changed, then heads into the bush to live with his grown daughter Lucy (Jessica Haines). She owns a small farm where she raises flowers for market and has brokered a tentative peace with the local blacks. Since the universe is not remotely through with David, that peace falls apart in horrific fashion.
There are a few different directions “Disgrace’’ could go from here, one of them being a “Straw Dogs’’ vigilante movie it flirts with but doesn’t really engage. Malkovich’s character is too weirdly passive, for one thing, and screenwriter Anna Maria Monticelli and director Steve Jacobs, working from Coetzee’s clean, clear prose, want to bring the David Luries of the world to self-awareness. On their knees, if possible.
The only job David can get is at a local animal shelter, helping euthanize a never-ending line of stray dogs. The film fakes one such death and cremation for the camera, which refuses to flinch even when the audience does. We understand that looking away is no longer an option. We’d understand that David and the whites of South Africa have themselves become the country’s stray dogs even if the script didn’t spell it out, which it unfortunately does.
Malkovich seems an odd choice for the role, but, then, the actor is an odd choice for any role. His eccentric, even effete remove from the rest of the human race is one of his strengths, because it avoids cliche and prompts the simple curiosity of wondering what this man will do next. David Lurie is an aesthete and a dilettante - an expert in Romantic poetry in a country utterly without romance. Malkovich conveys his humbling by tiny degrees until it melts into acceptance.
“Disgrace’’ - the title, you realize, refers to a larger fall from grace as well as David’s personal shame - has been shot by cinematographer Steve Arnold under hard sunlight with an eye to the unforgiving landscape. Nothing is allowed to hide here, and slowly the hero is brought to see the parallels between his actions and what has happened to his daughter. He seeks forgiveness, becomes capable of genuine affection, and it’s still not enough. Is anything? Can apartheid be forgiven? The film’s wise enough, at least, to not attempt an answer.