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‘The Advocate’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 02, 1994

At the beginning of "The Advocate," set during the Middle Ages, a French peasant and a she-ass, nooses around their necks, stand side by side on a gallows. In the provincial hamlet of Abbeville, where the law applies equally to humans and animals, both culprits are to be hanged for--no use beating about the bush here--sodomy. But just before the fatal moment, the execution is interrupted by a messenger with a letter of reprieve. Unfortunately, the pardon is for the she-ass. Attesting to the good character of the animal, who was "violated without consent," the missive declares her free "without stain to her character." The grimy, Gallic crowd applauds vociferously.

In Leslie Megahey's bawdy, brainy satire, this is the backward medieval world that greets newly arrived attorney Colin Firth. Seeking rustic relief from the rat race in Paris, the advocate soon finds out country life is no legal picnic. His first clients include a peasant accused of killing his wife's lover, a woman charged with witchcraft and a pig that apparently savaged a boy to death. (The hog was seen scurrying away from the scene of the crime.)

Handily securing release for the cuckolded client, the savvy lawyer finds that courtroom skills are not nearly enough for the other two cases. The town is controlled by the legal establishment (including prosecutor Donald Pleasence), the Church, the landed gentry (including manipulative landowner Nicol Williamson) and the strangest book of legal clauses Firth has ever flipped through. In Abbeville, he learns, a witch is a witch. He also discovers that rats can be summoned to testify, but not Jews. As for the hog's case, its outcome seems to matter to a great many people, including the pig's impoverished gypsy owner (Amina Annabi) and the powers that be.

"The Advocate," informed by true diaries and lawbooks from the period, has its share of raunchiness, including a post-"Tom Jones" roll in a four-poster bed, which features an amusingly well-timed rooster call. (The scene had to be snipped down to avoid an inflammatory NC-17 rating from the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings board.) But the material (even in the supposedly shocking, unedited version) is entirely appropriate, if appreciated in context. The movie, which suggests an inspired collaboration between Peter Greenaway and Monty Python, is many things: It's a great satire, a comedy, a romance and a diverting medieval murder mystery, with ironic observations about provincialism, superstition, anti-semitism and hypocrisy along the way. When enlightened, friendly priest Ian Holm admits to Firth that he sleeps with confessors to absolve them of guilt, the advocate declares that hell must be full of priests.

"Can't move for 'em," says Holm. Now that's a medieval one-liner.

THE ADVOCATE (R) -- Contains graphic medieval profanity, explicit sex and the kind of irony the MPAA would need Cliff's Notes to understand.

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