March 11, 2010

Simple Success: Disgrace at Cornell Cinema

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“Repentance for silence is better than repentance for speaking”. This Moorish proverb could be the tagline for the 2008 movie Disgrace, in which a man discovers just this. Unwilling to repent for his sins in public, the man withdraws into the South African countryside where in his silent musings he tries to redeem himself and discovers his “disgrace.”   Disgrace documents the life of David Lurie, an English professor in South Africa, as he has an affair with a student and copes with the aftermath. The student is reluctant and their sexual relations border on rape, causing him to be expelled from the university. Thereafter he moves to the East Cape countryside to live with his daughter, where he tries to redeem himself.   From the beginning, we are surprised to find ourselves sympathizing with David, played by John Malkovich, as he executes plans to pursue his student. Despite his perversity, we fear for David and the consequences of his actions. The camera consistently pans scenes which are already in play and we are nervous of what we may find — not because we are disgusted by him, but because we desire to change the actions of a character we empathize with.   When David moves in with his daughter Lucy, he begins to confront his actions. And when Lucy is raped and her house pillaged by three local thieves, he starts to understand the monstrosity of his actions. This story line, however, seems, at times simplistic: A man finds redemption and learns about himself from love and family. What’s more, the central symbol of the film, dogs, serve to challenge David to question his own animalistic tendencies. We are all in our own respects animals, and all animals are in their own ways humane, he seems to conclude. But this metaphor and David’s conclusions from it are almost too easy. Nevertheless, Malkovich brings subtlety to the role. He repents, but also discovers the inevitability of sins. In his many silent moments, Malkovich evokes ambiguity and prevents certainty of his repentance or whether he believes repentance to even be attainable.  As in Lord Byron’s representation of Lucifer, to which David himself refers, “we are invited to sympathize” with David. But unlike Lucifer of whom Byron says “for though he lives among us, he is not one of us,” David arrests us precisely because he does seem to be one of us, and, in this film, we often feel as if we are him. But it is not in our desires, sins or even the way we manage them that we are asked to relate. Rather it is in the exceptions to these monstrous moments — not the moment — but the reflective moment after, that we are asked to join him.   What’s more, the other characters, whose own motives and desires are hinted at in this movie, add layers that augment Malkovich’s powerful performance. Lucy, played by Jessica Haines, is an introverted but strong character whose thoughts are often ambiguous — much like her father’s. Lucy’s frumpy and kind middle-aged friend who owns an animal shelter in town, Bev, played by Fiona Press, complicates the plot with her own surprising desires. And the landscape matches the characters; the browning South African hills arrest us in their ordinary and subtle beauty, in the same way that we are captured by the understated emotions of the people in this film.  This is a movie which could be easily overlooked. It has little content which could market it to the mainstream industry and seemingly little to distinguish it from other stories of redemption. But in its simplicity, Disgrace captures us and slows us to quietly observe the rawness and the beauty of its humanity.

Original Author: Caiden Leavitt