Film Review #225: Disgrace
Director: Steve Jacobs
Cast: John Malkovich, Jessica Haines, Antoinette Engel, Eriq Ebouaney
Serious area film buffs may be noticing a curious lull about now – for years now, end-of-April-beginning-of-May has been spring film festival season in Central New York. It still is downstate, where TriBeca’s been running full blast. West of here, the re-named Rochester 360/365 festival opens next Wednesday with James Ivory’s The City of Your Final Destination (2009), the first Merchant Ivory Productions film made without the late Ismail Merchant, who died in 2005. Ivory will be on hand for that, which is doubly significant for the region because the George Eastman House has just acquired the Merchant-Ivory film archive.
But this year, the Syracuse International Film festival makes a move to mid-October for its main events, though SYRFILM has been busy with monthly special screenings at the Palace in Eastwood since mid-winter, has hosted several visiting filmmakers and just completed its annual round of public pre-screenings of festival entries.
Word was, there’d be another kind of run-up over the summer to this year’s SYRFILM. Actor John Malkovich is expected to arrive here in August to shoot Hotel Syracuse with Israeli director Haim Bouzaglou. Set in the venerable old downtown landmark, which also houses SYRFILM’s offices and has been a sometime festival screening venue, this film is a project put together by SYRFILM’s Owen Shapiro. It would be the second film collaboration with Bouzaglou, whose already-completed, Syracuse-made Session will opens this year’s festival in the fall. Final green light on the Malkovich project still awaits the signing of the lead actress, so far a carefully guarded secret.
Meanwhile, another Malkovich film released this week on DVD. Disgrace has had scant upstate screen time except for four showings earlier this spring at Cornell Cinema. This 2008 film brings South African J. M. Coetzee’s Booker prize-winning 1999 novel of the same name to the screen, the first feature-length film by Australia-based husband and wife team Steve Jacobs and Anna-Maria Monticelli. Disgrace is a difficult and unsettling film, but Malkovich’s daring performance as David Lurie has been widely and I think correctly praised as worth the price of admission; it was certainly worth the drive to Ithaca. Whether or not SYRFILM eventually arranges a local screening once Malkovich is here, you don’t have to wait.
As David Lurie, Malkovich plays a Cape Town professor of Romantic poetry who loses his job after his student, Melanie Issacs (Antoinette Engel), reports his unwanted attentions after first attempting suicide and her boyfriend and then her father confront him. US reviewers tend to call Melanie Issacs simply a “mixed-race student,” though I suspect to a South African audience – the film has been shown in 17 countries so far, but notably not yet there – this status might be more complicated. One of the early scenes suggests this, as Lurie is hauled resentfully before a panel of colleagues who will make a recommendation. He is completely uncooperative and unrepentant. This scene astutely presents a good many things – the dynamics of male faculty who bend over to help Lurie keep his post, the women who don’t, and Lurie’s obstinate refusal to play by the commonly understood script, which sets up his later act of penance and perhaps the comeuppance that provokes that – but it also lays out in some detail what comprises, in that setting of international crossroads, a jury of one’s “peers.” That is, given the names and hues of the panel, one of wider variety and background than we may be accustomed to imagining in South Africa.
US reviewers also customarily call Lurie a “university professor” when really he’s teaching at a somewhat lowlier “technical college” in a department that’s now, we are to understand, downgraded from “Literature” to “Communications.” His colleagues are worried for him that losing this job – “in these times,” as one murmurs – will make his precarious situation worse. So David Lurie has come to rest on a rather shabby rung of the ladder and, despite his pretensions, he knows it, which sharpens both his disappointment and the fact that he is not a likable man. Once fired, he toys with an idea he’s had for a while – one he dangled before Melanie Isaacs to impress her – that he’ll write that opera about Romantic poet Lord Byron’s sojourn in Italy.
Professor Lurie’s fall from academic grace occupies a good half of the film, after which he repairs to the rural farm of his daughter Lucy (Jessica Haines, in a stunning performance), on the eastern Cape. Lucy had settled there with another woman with the idea of homesteading, raises flowers and vegetables for the local marketplace, and now that her partner has left her, has sold part of her land to Petrus (the excellent Eriq Ebouaney, Patrice Lumumba in Raoul Peck’s 2000 film about the martyred African politician).
Petrus works relentlessly and noisily – a fact that pokes some droll fun at David’s disturbed contemplation – building his own cinderblock home, acquiring a new wife, planting a garden, and acting as the benign patriarch of an apparently large extended family. This clan includes a “troubled” boy named Pollux (Buyami Duma) who, with two other teenagers, rapes Lucy, sets David on fire and shoots Lucy’s guard dogs. It is Petrus who ultimately brokers a solution to this situation.
Both the novel and the film (quite faithful though the film rearranges events to change the ending) play a bit with the likelihood that many in teh audience want to see Disgrace primarily as David and Lucy’s story – whites who have not yet found their footing or their bearings in the roiling post-apartheid South Africa. Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr notes that these Europeans are themselves much like “stray dogs.” David volunteers at a veterinary clinic in town and assists in putting down stray dogs – even one lame pup he takes a shine to – and Petrus introduces himself to David, “I look after the dogs and water the garden. The dog man – yes.”
But really this is a tale with, if not a parallel track, a shadow image – a tale of two aggrieved fathers, two violated daughters, two acts of what seem – at least to David – like attempted suicide, two initial refusals to repent, despite the one being tricked out as cultured and the other as what some European characters first see as savage.
Appeared in the April 29, 2010 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. “Disgrace” is available on DVD already from Netflix.