Writer and Director: Romas Zabarauskas
(BFI Flare was cancelled, but some films were still available to review remotely. Other films are available to watch on BFI Flare at Home)
From the first leisurely shot, a gradual close up of lawyer Marius in his office, high up in a flashy hi-rise in Vilnius, it’s certain that this film takes itself seriously. Marius, too, takes himself seriously; he has a good job as a corporate lawyer, a luxury apartment – all glass – in a trendy part of the city, and wealthy friends. He’s a little soulless, something that this film otherwise avoids.
Funded with the help of the Lithuanian Film Centre, Romas Zabarauskas’ The Lawyer displays a modern country with progressive politics. One of the film’s first scenes shows a dinner party where gay men discuss monogamy in the light of homonormativity – the idea that gay men and lesbians mimic heteronormative lifestyles by getting married, moving to the suburbs and adopting children. One man embraces other ways of loving, but Marius is a traditionalist, wanting to settle down in a long-term relationship. He’s such a traditionalist that he doesn’t realise that the man he asks to stay at the end of the dinner party is a trans man.
However, Marius is not averse to paying for sex, even if the sex is remote. He pays men to dance for him in chatrooms over the internet, his computer screen projected onto the whole of his apartment’s wall. One of the men takes his fancy, and within days Marius goes to Belgrade to find him and bring him home. However, despite his money, he finds this impossible. The sex-worker is a Syrian refugee, living in a UN refugee camp on the edge of the city. And as Serbia is not in the EU, whereas as Lithuania is, The Lawyer promises to be a love story without a happy ending.
To underline the fact that Serbia is less enlightened when it comes to LGBTQ+ issues, Belgrade appears as a series of Brutalist buildings, and while some of them are stunning, they still hark back to the 1950s and communism. In comparison, Vilnius is shiny and new, full of swanky galleries and artists. Marius looks out of place in Belgrade, walking around in suits too smart and too white for the city, often shot at dusk with horizons of wires, cars and bridges.
As Marius, Eimutis Kvoščiauskas is excellent: confident and privileged, used to getting his own way. His interactions with gallerist Darya (Darya Ekamasova) demonstrate his selfishness; she wants a divorce lawyer, but even though they are friends, he refuses to help her. But despite Marius’s comfort in his own skin, Kvoščiauskas gives him just the slightest vulnerability that ensures that we are still interested in his next move.
Marius’s self-assuredness is matched by Ali’s, the Syrian refugee. Ali doesn’t want to be rescued: as he says, he doesn’t need a Prince Charming. Doğaç Yildiz is enigmatic as the handsome Syrian, seemingly unfazed by everything, and his smiles suggest that he has his own agenda, that he is just as equipped as the lawyer who wants to save him. The two men often sit in silence, their faces giving absolutely nothing away.
This is Zabarauskas’ third feature, and he continues to veer away from portraying queer men as victims, helped in this case by the slightly chilly acting of the two protagonists. He also adds distance by playing around with filters, like a young Godard. Sex scenes are filmed in a red haze while oddly when the two men breakfast in bed, the film switches to black-and-white. These changes may bring a little wry humour to proceedings, but they also interrupt what is a realist film tackling the important issues of homophobia and migrancy, and where, crucially, they intersect.
But filters aside, the young Lithuanian’s greatest strength is his nerve, holding scenes a little too long. Hugs between Marius and Darya extend beyond their natural length, and likewise the final shot, where the actors, still unreadable, gaze into uncertain futures, suggests that we are forever lonely. Coldly detached, The Lawyer suggests that Romas Zabarauskas is a name to watch.