Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Coetzee’s Disgrace

When J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace was first published, the South African Nobel Laureate became the first writer to ever win a second Booker Prize, the prestigious British literary award. Shortly thereafter, he immigrated to Australia. While it might be a writer’s job to hold a mirror up to society, it seems Coetzee’s native country was still not ready to look into it. As adapted by director Steve Jacobs, Disgrace (trailer here) is a deeply troubling depiction of South African society that opens Friday in New York.

Apartheid has fallen, but Disgrace’s South Africa is hardly a post-racial society. Rather, it is hyper-racial. Professor David Lurie has yet to fully appreciate this though. As the film opens, his primary racial considerations involve his carnal desires. After a mixed-race prostitute spurns his growing attachment, he shifts his attention to a student. When his unwelcome desire escalates into harassment, it causes a scandal that ends his academic career. Given the steady erosion of the prestige and privilege of his position, Lurie takes his disgrace in stride. Still, he finds it advisable to leave town temporarily, so he visits his somewhat estranged daughter Lucy in the countryside.

If not exactly overjoyed to see Lurie, she initially appreciates the novelty of his visit, notwithstanding the precipitating circumstances. Lurie even makes an effort to fit in, helping out with her flowerbeds and volunteering at a local animal clinic. However, he can not shake his vague suspicions of Lucy’s neighbor and supposed protector Petrus. Then one afternoon, when Petrus is conveniently absent, everything changes.

Three young boys brutalize Lucy, while the severely beaten and burned Lurie is powerless to intervene. As bad as the attack was, the aftermath is even more painful for Lurie. Despite Lucy’s silent indictment of his ineffectualness, she refuses to report the assault to the police. When they later discover one of their assailants is a kinsman of Petrus under his protection, Lucy expressly forbids any confrontations, determined to bear her pain as her share of the collective guilt engendered by white South Africans.

Screenings of Disgrace are not likely to become a Mandela Day tradition anytime soon. It portrays a post-Apartheid South Africa paralyzed by vengefulness and white guilt—a perfect storm of social pathologies. It is not a story of false hope, but weary resignation.

John Malkovich is riveting as Lurie, convincingly portraying his humbling transformation. However, as Lucy, Jessica Haines is hobbled by a character that too often seems to be acting as a symbol than a believable human being. Still, the raw honesty of Coetzee’s story has an undeniable power that Anna-Maria Monticelli’s screenplay preserves, addressing the dramatic situations directly without resorting euphemism. Using the Australian outback as a stand-in, Disgrace also effectively captures the savage beauty of South Africa’s semi-arid highlands, a land that seems to exert a persistent hold on its residents, despite the danger of its remoteness.

Disgrace is often a challenging film to watch, but it is gripping, highly literate drama. It is frankly impressive how uncompromising it is, given the hot button racial issues it tackles. Disgrace opens Friday (9/18) at the Quad.