In this second edition of Favorites from Fiction, I chose my own personal favorite characters that play lawyers in films and television. These selections include two French films, a Polish film/television episode, and a Swedish and American television series.
1. Piotr from A Short Film About Killing
Originally made for Polish television by director Krzysztof Kieślowski, A Short Film About Killing (1988) is the fifth installment in the ten hour-long Dekalog series. Each film focuses on the residents of a housing complex in late-Communist Poland, whose lives become subtly intertwined as they face emotional dilemmas that are at once deeply personal and universally human. The ten films, pull from the Ten Commandments for thematic inspiration and an overarching structure, grapple deftly with complex moral and existential questions concerning life, death, love, hate, truth, and the passage of time. A Short Film About Killing portrays a very relatable defense attorney named Piotr who represents a young boy that has murdered and stolen from a taxi driver. Although Piotr fully invests himself in the trial, sympathizing with his client (even realizing he was present in the very same cafe with the boy just hours before the murder took place), the boy is found guilty and executed in a brutal fashion. Early on in the film, we see Piotr in an interview scenario with what can be presumed to be the Polish government for a character assessment to hire him on as a public defender. A panel of judge-like authorities questions him – why do you want to be a lawyer? Piotr’s words say a lot about his humble aspirations to do good:
“I hesitate not because I do not know what to say… I’ve been asked this question twice before. When taking entrance exams, the answer seemed simple then. The short answer is: I don’t know. It attracts me. I’ve seen many cases in the last four years. You could describe the work as a social function. I think that’s very important. But most of all… if all goes well… I’ll have the opportunity to meet and understand people I couldn’t meet in any other profession. I believe that as the years pass the answer becomes more elusive. Everyone wonders if what they do makes sense. I fear we have more and more doubts.”
He is then asked what, in his view, deters crime, and gives his opinion on punishment:
“In general terms it is the impact of punishment not on the criminal, but on others to discourage them… shall I put it precisely? … It intimidates others. Article 50 of the Penal Code, it’s a doubtful justification for the severity of the sentences – it is often unjust. Since Cain, no punishment has proved to be an adequate deterrent.”
An extremely moving work, you will find yourself empathizing with the Piotr as he grapples with the realities of an un-feeling legal system that shows no mercy to a soul he believes committed an unlawful and awful act yet whose life circumstances somehow led him down a path to an unavoidable fate he did not really deserve.
2. Lucie from Out 1
1971 epic mystery by French director Jacques Rivette can be viewed in 8 parts totaling nearly 13 hours, or you can opt for a very different theatrical version spanning 4 hours. Either way, the film and plot are difficult to decipher but always intriguing as a sprawling cast explores parallel subplots with seemingly loosely connected characters uncovering new characters with their own subplots. All plots and characters seem to be at least partially connected to the existence of a secret society based on Balzac’s “History of the Thirteen”.
One of the most mysterious characters is female lawyer (and apparent member of the Secret 13 group) Lucie. Obviously smart and sexy, she stands out among the cast as one of only three females not directly involved in theatre groups. Her cleverness is showcased multiple times including a grand moment on a rooftop in which another character attempts to blackmail her, but Lucie is too sly for that!
3. Marianne from Scenes from a Marraige
Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 television drama stars successful career women, wife and mother Marianne. In early episodes you see and hear Marianne giving advice to both close friends and clients in her practice of Family Law matters, advising them on divorce. She and her husband Johan even submit to an interview touting the longevity and happiness of their marriage despite their separate and fulfilling professional lives. However, a veil is quickly lifted when Marianne suddenly finds herself in the throws of separation and divorce. Chronicled in a way that makes empathy unavoidable, blind yet strong Marianne sifts through the turmoil, all the while maintaining her career as a lawyer and a good yet strained friendship with her ex.
4. The Young Man from The Bakery Girl of Monceau
The nameless narrator in French director Eric Rohmer’s 1963 short film (23 minutes) is love struck law student. Initially attracted to a beautiful young woman he passes on the street, the student looses faith in his pursuit when she seems to disappear. In his searching the streets of Paris for her, he happens across a bakery and has increasing interactions with the girl working there. After the bakery girl finally agrees to go out with him, the woman he was originally infatuated with resurfaces and he stupidly makes a commitment with her for the same time. He arrives at his choice which is a cold one showing little regard for the feelings of the rejected woman. He rationalizes with himself: “My choice had been above all, moral. One represented truth, the other a mistake, or that was how I saw it at the time.” Although not necessarily a likable character, he is a truly believable and often relatable young man grappling with tough decisions even within a simple and short plot. There are many scenes in which you view him pouring over his case books, studying like a good but stressed law student.
5. Lionel Hutz from The Simpsons
Who doesn’t love Lionel Hutz? This popular American animated television series is one I fell in love with during college, and for nearly eight years now it has been a nightly watching ritual. My family and I have quite a collection of early Simpsons seasons on DVD. He’s the lawyer you love to hate; a humorous example of what a terrible lawyer looks like. What better way to enjoy Hutz than with a few classic clips: