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Disgrace

Dir: Steve Jacobs

Rating: 4.0/5.0

Paladin

120 Minutes

Disgrace, based on J.M. Coetzee’s 1999 Booker Prize winning novel, tells the story of poetry professor David Lurie (John Malkovich) who is cast out of his job as a university professor after having an affair with one of his students. Though many would frown upon an illicit affair with a student decades his junior, it’s the nature of race (his student is of mixed heritage) that really infuriates the university community. As South Africa moves ahead in its cultural transformation, Disgrace questions the place of the white man in this new nation, and whether there is even a place anymore for this sudden minority in terms of power.

It is Lurie’s white privilege that is most disturbing in these opening scenes. While he fashions himself something of a Byronic hero, Lurie more or less forces himself on the student, as if it’s his divine right to take the girl in what can only be a metaphor for white settlers taking what they wanted from South Africa. As director Steve Jacobs frankly frames Lurie screwing the lifeless student, he emphasizes the professor’s complete indifference to her slack posture, vacant eyes and emotional turmoil. But once Lurie is ordered to defend himself before a university panel, he refuses to apologize for his actions and leaves his position. Lurie seems to believe that lust is intrinsic to man’s nature and that he cannot apologize for such innate yearning. So, he leaves Cape Town, disgraced, to live with his farmer daughter Lucy (Jessica Haines), a recently single lesbian who makes an income selling flowers and vegetables at a local market.

Unfortunately, Lurie begins to see himself as even more obsolete when he learns Lucy’s black handyman Petrus (Eriq Ebounay) not only lives on the property but also enters her home whenever he feels like it to watch television. Despite her father’s fears, Lucy refuses to change her lifestyle. After a horrific crime is perpetrated, all Lurie can think of is revenge while Lucy’s white guilt forces her to believe she and her father are victims of a karmic reversal of fortune.

The crux of Coetzee’s vision becomes apparent when Lurie confronts Petrus, who begins to build a house on the property shortly after the crime is committed. Lurie, the white man, no longer has the upper hand in this new South Africa; his power is moribund. The insincerity of Petrus could be taken as the indifference of the nation’s new, black regime to this sudden plight of the white South African, callous treatment that reflects that of Lurie’s ancestors centuries before. Depending on your point of view, you can see Petrus’ solution to the situation as either a triumphant, forward thinking coup of liberal humanism or rather one race gaining the upper hand after centuries of domination; the oppressed becoming the oppressor.

Much like its source novel, Disgrace ends on an ambiguous note that can either be one of hope or the eradication of the place of people like Lurie in South Africa. Coetzee famously immigrated to Australia a few years after the publication of the novel, so it’s easy to take a negative bent with that knowledge. As Lurie slowly accepts (or succumbs), to his fate he commits an act that can be interpreted as completely selfless or selfish. Either way, he becomes much like the Byron and other poets that adorn the shelves of his empty Cape Town apartment: voices from an era that no longer exists and matters little to those living in this new milieu.

by David Harris
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