Hour of the Pig, or the Advocate, as it is better known outside England in its edited incarnation to avoid an NC-17 rating, is a period piece built around the curiosity of the medieval animal trial. Yes, this strange phenomenon actually occurred; both the Church, and to a lesser extent, the legal authorities in various parts of medieval Europe spend part of their time assessing the guilt of animals in regard to property damage and human injury. Behind their investigations in this heavily Christian world was the idea that the devil might be controlling those who were not Christian or otherwise behaving badly. As you might well imagine, Jews, Moors, animals, and other nonconformists often got the raw end of the deal. The film indulges slightly in the conceit that the sophisticates in society--like the advocate (Colin Firth) and an educated priest (Ian Holm)--were intellectually above these superstitions but were either too powerless or too hypocritical to protest it.
Be that as it may, the advocate (based loosely on an actual lawyer, and his cases) comes to a small town in the French countryside to begin a new practice away from the indecencies of Paris. He figures that his knowledge of law will work to both his advantage and that of his new neighbors, whom he is primed to admire for their bucolic virtues. He couldn't be more wrong. The tone is set with his first glimpse of the town, like a scene from Brueghel--the hanging of a man and a donkey convicted of engaging in sodomy. At the last minute, a messenger from the authorities arrives bearing a character reference sufficient to reprieve the donkey; no such luck, however, for her partner in crime.
From that point forward, the film gently presents the advocate as mistaken about nearly every conviction that he deigns to express. The serving girl at the inn, whom he admires on first glance for how she "carries herself," so unlike the women in Paris, turns out to be a prostitute. Nor is he aware that this inn, in which he takes up residence, is a whorehouse until his clerk, who is the script's witty voice of common sense, informs him just before he returns to Paris. His first case, the defense of a man accused of killing his wife's lover, in which a pig figures as a material witness, is an ostensible success, though the defendant all but admits his guilt to the stunned advocate after the trial. His second case, upon which he enters with doomed confidence, is an unmitigated disaster because of his ignorance of local precedent, resulting in the death of a woman for witchcraft. As the woman is taken from the courtroom, she offers the advocate some enigmatic advice about a case involving a young Jewish boy recently killed, apparently by a pig belonging to gypsies. "Look to the boy," she tells him. At her execution, she offers the town not the curse that everyone was expecting but a blessing, intended to cure the town of its sins. As it happens, the blessing comes true, but, as this film would have it, the cure may well be worse than the disease.
Enter now the plot's hinge. The authorities incarcerate the gypsies' pig, expecting to execute it. Firth wants desperately to avoid the matter, despite his attraction to the seductive owner of the animal, but fate conspires against him. The case eventually gets him mixed up with the local seigneur (Nicol Williamson), a pragmatic businessman who bought his title and wants to buy the advocate as well. We're not quite sure why until much later when the advocate learns how the boy died, but the advocate still has to win the pig's freedom because the facts of the case remain hidden.
The film doesn't qualify as a traditional murder mystery, despite the scaffolding of its plot; it's a little too arbitrary for that. But its irony and its flirtation with mystification, if not traditional narrative mystery, maintain interest. Furthermore, its sense of humor doesn't get in the way of the dark, the gruesome, and the baffling, which are the film's true hallmark. The characters are well drawn and well acted. This story is an adventure of a sort that doesn't often make it into film these days. Too bad. The rewards are many.