Tuesday, 7 April 2020

BFI FLARE 2020 - THE LAWYER (ADVOKATAS) review

The BFI Flare festival wrapped up last weekend, having moved itself online in the outbreak of Covid-19 and the temporary closure of the host venue of BFI Southbank. This did mean that a lot of the features that were due to have their premieres at the festival (among them Romas Zabarauskas's The Lawyer) are still awaiting their red carpet debuts, but luckily I was able to get a sneak peek at it.

Corporate Lawyer Marius (Eimutis Kvosciauskas) is caught in an existential spin after the death of his father. With a thriving, successful career but a romantic life that consists of paying for an interaction with men online, he's hoping he can find more than a surface level connection with someone. When he meets Ali (Dogac Yildiz) on a pay for pleasure website, the emotionally distant Marius decides to take a leap, travelling to Belgrade in order to meet him, but his plans go awry when Ali opens up about his real life problems. A Syrian national living in a refugee camp, Marius has to decide whether he should put everything he has on the line to help Ali find a way to leave the country.

At the heart of Romas Zabarauskas's latest is a weighty subject matter far beyond what you might expect from our introduction to Marius and his yuppie dinner parties. Things first begin to change for Marius when he discovers that a guest at one of these parties is trans, a fact that has him questioning his complacency towards engaging in the lives of his friends and co-workers. He's been living his life in a manner that brings to mind Michael Fassbender in Shame; full of temporary lovers to appease his sexual appetite that seems to fulfil him at the time, but with no real interpersonal connections. As Marius searches for something deeper he begins to interact with Ali, who will dance and strip for him in exchange for money. As the two hit it off online, Marius travels to meet with Ali in what he expects will be an encounter based on sex, but that Ali hopes will lead to legal advice.

A story told across different countries and different languages (mainly English and Lithuanian), The Lawyer is a real world commentary on the refugee crisis that is affecting many areas of the world, with an emphasis on the dangers homosexual refugees may face when housed in the camps. This is a crucial plot point but is surprisingly not leaned into too heavily, keeping its dramatic moments quite low key. I wouldn't recommend going into this film expecting it to be a tense legal thriller, as it isn't. Despite the film's title of The Lawyer, this is more about the man who bears that job description, and the complex moral dilemma he finds himself in when his meeting with Ali causes him to question his boundaries. Whilst in Belgrade Marius is called upon by Darya, a client and friend to assist with her divorce, something that is not his speciality as a corporate lawyer, but still, a request he is quick to shoot down as a conflict of interest. Could he help her? Sure, but he's not willing to potentially sacrifice a part of himself for her. With Ali, this poses a different quandary for him, and the potential for love, sex and maybe more has him pursuing all options when the human rights specialists give him the cold hard facts.

In what is never a showy role, Eimutis Kvosciauskas is able to flesh Marius out from the icy cold man he begins the film as to something far more rounded, although it does take some time to get there. The focus remains on him, but his best scenes are when he is with Dogac Yildiz's Ali. Together they do share an unconventional, modern love story; kept apart by rules and restrictions that don't always make sense, and that leave them with no option but to stretch their own principles and Marius's view of the law. It's also open to interpretation as to how much Ali is manipulating Marius for his own benefit. There becomes a point when this isn't the case at all, but it's up to the audience to decide where.

The romance is certainly not one you can get swept up in and there is a feeling of restraint and distance between the pair throughout the film. It's not really a legal drama either, leaving most of the potential conflict that would arise from the scenario unexplored, although it's refreshing that director and writer Romas Zabarauskas didn't feel the need to force violence into the script. The Lawyer does leave a lot to ponder on the issues it raises about a refugee crisis, in particular to LGBTQIA refugees stuck in camps, and it's in its favour as a drama that will stick with you that the moral and ethical implications of a legal professional following certain paths are not all resolved when the credits begin to roll.

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