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‘The Advocate’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 02, 1994

Somehow it seems almost perfect that one of the last films to be released in this singular summer should be a rumbustious comedy about a medieval lawyer forced to defend a pig.

Written and directed by Leslie Megahey, "The Advocate" is a farcical satire about political power and the law, a murder mystery, a cross-cultural love story, and an examination of the conflicts between paganism and Christianity in the late Middle Ages. It's also a film that inexplicably received a rating of NC-17 from the Motion Picture Association of America, supposedly for what might be best described as a spirit of bawdy sensuality. The rating was later reduced to R after cuts were made.

It would be nice to say that this eccentric salad of ideas has been put together with genius, but while "The Advocate" shows intelligence and imagination, it is so strenuously unsubtle and clamorous in its staging that your nerves are set on edge. As a director, Megahey aspires to the bustling, antic style that Tony Richardson achieved 30 years ago with "Tom Jones," but achieves something closer in tone to "Porky's."

Initially, the film sets out as a spirited picaresque about a city slicker plopped down amongst a population of idiosyncratic rubes; it's a sort of plague years "Green Acres." The porker in question has been accused of murdering a small child. His lawyer, Courtois (Colin Firth), is a go-getting Parisian, newly arrived in Abbeville as the public defender in the court of a powerful feudal seigneur (Nicol Williamson).

Courtois represents the coming age; he's a Renaissance man trapped in a waning medieval era. As a man of enlightened modern thinking, the young advocate has come to this backwater village with hopes of spreading the gospels of democracy, rationality and law. But outside the big cities, religion and superstition are still hopelessly muddled with the law, and most power falls to feudal lords.

Courtois' arrival marks the beginning of a civic conflict not just between the advocate and the local seigneur but also their contrasting modes of thought. Courtois refuses to defend the pig against the charge of murder for the clear and simple reason that animals cannot be tried for crimes in a court of law. But because of local superstition, medieval law still allows animals to be called into court, both as witnesses and defendants, and the seigneur demands his full compliance. The pig will be put on trial and Courtois will be his lawyer.

To further complicate matters, the pig belongs to a young Gypsy couple who depend on their piggy to survive. To lose the pig would mean losing everything. As a result, the Gypsy Samira (Amina Annabi) allies with Courtois to save the pig by the only means he can come up with -- by finding the real murderer.

The story sounds promising, but its events unfold without making much of an impression. As the corrupt seigneur, Williamson is thin-lipped and viperous, like a cross between George Sanders and the Sheriff of Nottingham, and his muttered asides are wickedly cynical. Firth's Courtois is likable enough, but his presence is somehow too modern, too light, and all too often he comes across more a game show host than a frustrated attorney.

As Pincheon, Courtois' adversary in court, Donald Pleasence does a good job of showing how this slyboots manipulates the system. But the one truly hilarious performance in the film is given by Ian Holm as Albertus, a local priest who puts his own creature comforts ahead of his religious duties. Like Courtois, Albertus is an advanced thinker, but he's also a sybarite and lech.

Though the film's rating troubles have given "The Advocate" an instant reputation, the film itself doesn't live up to it and might otherwise have vanished with little note. It's clever and energetic, yet somehow you just can't work up any enthusiasm for it.

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