The Inner Hurricane Is Coming Pablo O. Scholz reviews "Disgrace"

in 33rd Toronto International Film Festival

by Pablo Scholz

How do you confront what your own life has come to, caught between the person you desire to be and the person you are? And how do you do it when you live in a nation that’s preparing to rebuild its very sense of self?

Like a man in the eye of a hurricane, everything about David Lurie is going to be torn apart — his mind, his behavior and perhaps even his raging soul. Played by an entirely believable John Malkovich, Lurie is a professor in Cape Town, South Africa, who seems to have an empty heart, falling one time and then another into the disgrace that gives the film its title.

After being expelled from his university in the wake of his affair with a student — strangely, more than a few films at Toronto this year turn on this sort of relationship, as well as men who are abandoned by their women — Lurie decides to visit his daughter (Jessica Haines) at her remote farm in the countryside. She is alone, though a black workman, Petrus, lives nearby. When three black youngsters attack Lurie and Lucy — and her dogs, who will subsequently become the film’s primary metaphor — Lurie is knocked unconscious, and Lucy is raped. Enraged and humiliated over his inability to protect his daughter, David subsequently finds himself leaping out of his skin with the need to avenge her.

I haven’t read the novel by J.M. Coetzee, who explores the violence and some sense of being alienated from South African society, so the film’s narrative came at me like something fresh and dark; the uncomfortable situations that Anna Maria Monticelli brings us in her adaptation of the Booker prize-winning novel were disturbing for the film’s full running time.

Even if you don’t hail from a country with such racial or political conflicts in its recent past — with tensions and anger still hovering in the air — Disgrace will press some buttons on your conscience. This is not a primarily political film, but the Australian director Steve Jacobs raises the theme of personal conflict and crosses it with the social: Racism is a factor here, as well as the relationship between a father and a daughter learning in very different ways how to integrate with, and how to survive, a society in dangerous transition.

Is reconciliation possible? How could a father attempt to understand what has happened to his daughter, even if she wants to keep her baby after the rape? What kind of justice is applicable? Will it come from the authorities? From others? Or from his own hand? How can he adapt to this new reality when everything he knows is no longer applicable?

These are a lot of questions for just one film, but the constant tragedy and the complex world in which Lurie lives are here to disturb us, and make us ask ourselves the very meaning of life. Pretentious or not, this is what Steve Jacobs does.

After all, his protagonist is a fallible white man who has been charged with taking sexual advantage of a black student, and was also arrogant enough to defend his actions before his university. And now he is out at a farm, far from what he knows and where he belongs, confronted with his isolation and forced to question his sense of what “truth” and “reality” mean. Morality is the centre of behavior. But do his actions follow his principles, his instincts, or his impulses?

The film considers hope, redemption and the savage soul of man, but not as a manifesto or a statement. The film considers taboos like sex and racism, and the nature of family values. Resistance to change is always difficult, but Disgrace serves as a step on the way to understanding how to deal with internal demons and build a better society – whether that’s in South Africa, the Bahamas or on your own street corner.