Disgrace (2008)

Watching Disgrace reminded of something I learned a long time ago.

I was at a lecture or seminar a few decades ago and the speaker took out a strip of paper about the size of a bookmark and held it up.  He asked, “What color is this?”  It was white so everyone shouted out that it was white.  The lecturer said it was blue.  He then picked out individuals from the group and asked the same question.  Since the paper was white he received the same answer.  Some said “off-white” or “eggshell,” but he insisted that the paper was blue and was adamant that everyone else was wrong.   It all seemed idiotic until the man with the paper in his hand turned it around and the side of the paper facing him was blue.  From his perspective it was blue and we could tell him until we were blue in the face that it was white but he would never have varied his position.

The way we see, understand, and react to things is based on our individual perspectives.  It’s why there may never be peace between the Israelis and Palestinians or why a black man might feel differently about being pulled over by a policeman than does a white man.  These differences are not matters of opinion, but fact; different from each individual’s perspective.  Deep seeded life experiences shape our relative perspectives and no discussion, explanation or argument can change it.  Think about this when you see what’s happening in the world.  It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten.

Disgrace takes place in South Africa not long after the fall of apartheid.  It is very powerful, thought-provoking, and disturbing.  It also contains one of the best performances you’ll ever see from John Malkovich, whose character is decidedly unlikable, as well as some very fine acting from Jessica Haines who plays his daughter.

There’s much more to it, but at the heart of the film is a scene where Malkovich and Haines are the victims of brutal black on white violence; but what’s most disturbing about it is the unwavering and seemingly inexplicable reactions of the characters involved, particularly his daughter.

This is not a “feel-good” formulaic movie, nor is it perfectly constructed, but I’ve read several reviews that were displeased with the ending because it appears to be heading toward an understandable conclusion, yet it doesn’t.  Not from their perspectives anyway, and maybe that’s the point.  The ending is the best part of the movie.  It is the point.

I couldn’t begin to understand what it was like to live in South Africa at that point in time, nor can comprehend the actions of those who did.  Even Malkovich’s character  has trouble coming to grips with the decisions of his daughter.  I can, however, try to understand it or at least understand that one’s perspective has a tremendous impact on one’s conduct.  That perspective being different from my own, however, makes it difficult, or even impossible, for me to fully understand it.

If the ending teaches us anything it’s that sometimes life is just what it is and you have to leave it at that, and perspective greatly impacts what one is willing to live with.  As one character put it after Malkovich castigated him about all the wrong that had been committed and the insanity of the solution they chose, he just said “and now it’s finished” and went on with his work, unaffected.


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