The Lawyer – BFI Flare Film Festival 2020 – Film Review
Lithuania was on my list of places to visit this spring; however, such trip was unfortunately curtailed by the current travel restrictions in effect for the Covid-19 outbreak. It was not only holidays that have been affected by the pandemic but also film festivals such as BFI Flare which has now moved some of its feature films online following the cancellation of the festival. Fortunately, Lithuania’s film The Lawyer, which would have had its World Premiere at the BFI Flare Film Festival, was one that could still be accessed online as a preview screening. Other films from the festival can be currently viewed on the BFI Player as part of BFI Flare at Home from 20-29 March 2020.
Initially set in Vilnius, The Lawyer provides a social commentary in its examination of the LGBT community in Lithuania. Seemingly conservative, gay marriage, as explored in the film, is an illegal concept in Lithuania however Marius, the protagonist who is the titular lawyer, is homosexual. Marius lives in a stylish apartment, works for a corporate law firm with luxurious premises and is teased by some of his friends of living a ‘hetero-normative’ existence due to his commitment to monogamy.
Indeed, Marius’ dinner parties over wine with friends, and having art exhibition owning friends who become clients, are reflective of a bourgeois lifestyle. Marius is affluent, sophisticated, he is the wearer of black shirts with a black suit, and charming. However, he spends some evenings in a seemingly sordid Internet chatroom speaking with men from abroad via web-cam and there is perhaps a degree of inverted snobbery in effect in such scenarios given that one of Marius’ friends makes the thinly veiled comment that he only likes ‘working class men’. There is a degree of truth in such statement, as revealed later in the film, which is not just uttered out of a case of friendship envy.
The Lawyer continues its political path after Marius’ world is overturned following the bereavement of a family member where there are hints of unresolved issues and regret. Could it possibly have been the case that Marius’ family had disapproved of his homosexual lifestyle and the question arises as to whether Marius had been ostracised as a result. It is not entirely clear but there are glimpses into his former life as reconciliations are attempted with the deceased. Using close ups, hand-held camera angles and long angle shots depicting a distraught Marius there is an attempt to create a level of sympathy. At this stage, it is evident that Marius is a complex character not least as there is perhaps a level of prejudice or misunderstanding towards a transgender, bisexual character introduced within earlier scenes.
Further attempts are made in The Lawyer to demonstrate a more humane side to Marius which belies his corporate lawyer persona. He is shown to assist a friend with a legal case despite not practising family law and he is also relied upon, at a later stage, to utilise his legal skills involving a human rights issue.
The Lawyer successfully moves the action from Vilnius to Belgrade in its second half. Ali is the man with whom Marius had been speaking in the internet chatroom, in scenes impressively bathed within a pink glow, who lives in Belgrade. Very strikingly in one scene, Marius switches off his computer connection, there is a contrasting blue glow across his spacious apartment, which looked beautiful whilst bathed in such hues and evoked a futuristic sensation.
The cinematography is very stylish indeed and the smooth, seductive jazz playing as non-diegetic pieces are a very effective accompaniment allowing the film to develop at its own pace, maintaining a similar rhythm, but also invokes a hypnotising effect throughout the film. Such musical impact also assists by creating a platform for romance in a boy meets boy trope which so far seems rather predictable given that Marius is suffering from grief. All of which is heightened by the mesmerising chemistry between Eimutis Kvoščiauskas and Doğaç Yildiz as Marius and Ali.
The Lawyer changes tack due to the revelation of Ali’s political status, he is a Syrian refugee. The effects of the Syrian war and the concept of political prisoners are subtly examined from a different perspective in The Lawyer compared to recent, powerful documentaries such as For Sama and The Cave. The inclusion of Ali’s political situation elevates the film beyond merely portraying a tale of star-crossed love.
Within Belgrade, which is depicted as an area full of brutalist, concrete high-rise buildings, Ali spends his nights sleeping in a refugee camp, which highlights his plight as many refugees fled to Europe. However, there are very few scenes shown of the refugee camp itself. By maintaining such aspects off-camera, The Lawyer effectively creates a sense of equality between the two men as Ali did not wish to be treated as a ‘victim’ and indeed Ali is the one to emphasise the class differences between his situation and that of Marius’. Their relationship had not seemed entirely convincing prior to such moments, given the disparity between the two characters. These touches of realism are therefore welcomed and essentially have the effect of creating an added layer of complicacy and tension throughout The Lawyer.
The Lawyer almost transforms itself into a compelling political drama but stops short of doing so fully. The film does seem uncertain in those stages as to which direction it intends to follow.
Understandably, the dynamics between Marius and Ali change in light of the couple having to search for ways in which Ali, who declares himself as bisexual, can achieve a degree of freedom from the refugee camp. The various encounters with official organisations and the levels of bureaucracy encountered are effective in providing that insight into a frustrating situation and at moments there is an unanswered question as to whether there may be a degree of exploitation also in effect between Marius and Ali. However, it is not instantly obvious as to whom may be exploiting who. Would Marius be exploiting Ali in his time of grief or is Ali exploiting Marius to assist with his refugee status?
Extremely beautiful shots are included in The Lawyer with panoramic scenes by a dock with slightly out of focus boats in the distance which provide that contrast with the stark architecture within Belgrade. However, some of the apartment blocks contain captivating spiral staircases or other buildings are shot from a long angle to display the intricacy of the design; these act as scenes paying homage to the city but are also notable symbols of its troubled past.
Despite the apparent bleakness of some of the architectural constructs in Belgrade there is still a sense of beauty that pervades The Lawyer. The black and white shots, where the film effectively pauses and just indulges in its stylishness, are an interesting approach with lots of floral designs on display, which evoke the sense of a documentary or a dream sequence instead.
The Lawyer is unique in imbuing a sense of beauty and romance within the subject matter of the political status of Syrian refugees. It is a sensitive depiction and director Romas Zabarauskas liaised with refugees at Krnjaca camp in Belgrade to provide an accurate portrayal as well as meeting Helem, the first LGBT advocacy group in effect within the Arab world.
The Lawyer is Zabarauskas’ third feature film and it is ground-breaking as the first Lithuanian film to feature a gay love scene between two men. It is an aspect that has remained taboo, to date, in Lithuania however The Lawyer might therefore transcend those boundaries and encourage those talking points.
Zabarauskas is renowned for undertaking social activism campaigns and these elements of activism underpin The Lawyer. It appears that Zabarauskas is also a fan of French cinema and such influences are evident in the filming techniques used within the film. The emulation of such French cinema styles in combination with the complex themes of The Lawyer ensure that it is not only aesthetically pleasing but is equally a riveting watch.
The trailer for The Lawyer can be viewed here