The Advocate, a.k.a.
The Hour of the Pig
directed by Leslie Megahey
(Miramax, 1993)

A friend pitched this movie to me as an uproarious Monty Python-like film about medieval lawyers. The Miramax marketing division tried instead to promote it as a sensual murder-mystery and courtroom thriller. (They failed, however, to mention that it's set in the Middle Ages.) The truth is somewhere in between -- yes, The Advocate is funny, but it's no thigh-slapper. Yes, it contains something of a murder-mystery (with a large black hog as its primary suspect) and courtroom drama, but it's not edge-of-your-seat suspense. Yes, it is sensual at times (so much so that cuts were required to keep an NC-17 rating off the film), but it's certainly no glossy romance. (Generally, the film's love scenes generate a vague worry that perhaps the participants should have a bath or something first.)

But all combined, the movie is a fascinating -- if somewhat surreal and sometimes startling -- movie experience.

The Advocate (also known as The Hour of the Pig) stars Colin Firth as Richard Courtois, a Paris defense attorney who seeks a quieter life in the country. He and his diligent clerk, Mathieu (Jim Carter), settle in the quiet-seeming hamlet of Abbeville, but the town isn't as quiet as Courtois had hoped. Also, he learns to his frustration, the law allows animals to be accused and tried with the same rights and privileges as humans. Thus, shortly after freeing a man who bludgeoned his wife's lover to death and failing to save an accused witch, the conscientious Courtois finds himself called upon to defend the aforementioned pig.

Believe it or not, the major plot points of the film, set in 1452, are based on historical records, culled from court transcripts and diaries of the day. The opening scene, where a man and his she-ass stand accused of carnal acts, sets the tone as nooses are placed around both convicts' necks. A last-minute reprieve does arrive in time to save the ass, however -- the court has determined that she was a victim, not a willing participant, and therefore may go free with no stain upon her.

The stage appears set for a dry comedy. (If filmed in Hollywood, it would no doubt have been a slapstick.) But things become downright mysterious in Abbeville as a young Jewish boy is found dead -- the second in recent months -- and a pig seen fleeing the scene in a guilty manner is charged with the murder. Donald Pleasence does a grand turn as the prosecuting attorney, Pincheon, and Michael Gough (best known to Batman fans as the loveable butler Alfred) is the stern Magistrate Boniface who hears and judges each case.

But then the Seigneur Jehan d'Auferre (Nicol Williamson, Excalibur's Merlin and Robin & Marian's Little John) steps in to hear the case himself, and the merchant turned noble seems very eager to have the pig found guilty. That only stiffens Courtois' resolve to find the true killer and see the pig go free -- as does the pleadings of the pig's owner, the gypsy Samira (Armina Annabi).

Toss in the Seigneur's lusty, beautiful and braying daughter Filette (Lysette Anthony), his mad-seeming son Gerard (Justin Chadwick), the friendly innkeeper Maria (Sophie Dix) and the mean-spirited sheriff (Jean-Pierre Stewart) and you get an ensemble cast that keeps the action flowing and the audience guessing where this story is going. Special merit goes to Ian Holm as the priest Albertus, whose morals are unshakeably low.

Wrapped within writer/director Leslie Megahey's plot are a few satirical and serious bits about the role of women (and animals) in society, cross-cultural romance, religious bigotry, superstition and the law ... and, quite possibly, just desserts.

This movie isn't for everyone, and certainly the pace will seem a little slow for those raised on typical Hollywood comedy fare, but nonetheless it is worth tracking down for a curious 110 minutes of medieval intrigue and wit.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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