"The Advocate," which opens today at the Rotunda, puts me in mind of the old "SNL" parody, "Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber," where, amid freaks and mutilees, Steve Martin, playing the title character, bled a girl to death. Accused bitterly by her mother, he replied, "You know, some day medicine will be . . . kind. It will strive to save lives, to lessen pain, to relieve suffering. It will be based on science and it will bring light and hope to a dark world -- Nahhhhhhhhhhhh!"
"The Advocate" is almost as bleak a "Nahhhhhhhhhh," but alas, it finally aligns itself with the forces of reform and humanity. I hate that in a movie. Anyway, it very much seems set in such a comically bleak and merciless zone -- almost, come to think of it, Monty Pythonesque -- and its view of lost times is equally existential. If there's a carbuncle or a grimy smear anywhere on site, director Leslie Megahey will certainly photograph it. You've never seen so many toothless peasants, so many busty, filth-smeared wenches, so much casual cruelty and folly. Carnality and savagery are everywhere, mingled in the ample mud. And, like the old parody, it's set on just the faintest cusp of reason, where a man of intellect has begun to see through the prevailing ignorance.
That man is Richard Courtois, played by the elegant Colin Firth. The time is the 15th century, the place a rural village in France. The Bubonic Plague haunts the area, but far worse is the church's iron grip on the peasantry and its cruel usage of fear as a means of repression. This comes as a surprise to Courtois, who, romantic fool that he is, thought "the country" would be idyllic after the intrigue of the Paris court.
What he learns somewhat boggles his mind. Not only does the church hold men responsible for their souls, and execute them if they are found wanting, but it does so too for children, the insane and . . . animals. So it is that Courtois finds himself defending a pig against a murder charge.
Courtois is disgusted and enraged by the stupidity of it. But of course he soon sees the wider political purpose and he begins to devine that the authorities who designed such a system weren't ignorant barbarians but exquisite cynics, totally committed to the immensity of their control.
This movie is extremely sharp and clever, a murder mystery set against a believable medieval background that turns on the guilt or innocence of a pig. It's also well acted: besides Firth, the cast includes Ian Holm, Donald Pleasence and the great Nicol Williamson. I only wish that Megahey had resisted the temptation to involve a "beautiful gypsy" in the plot; she seems more like a screenwriter's idea than a realistic device.
But for those of you who believe you can't teach a pig to sing, here's chance to see one on the defense stand, singing for his life!
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Starring Colin Firth and Ian Holm
Directed by Leslie Megahey
Released by Miramax