Gay-oriented feature films rarely find a market beyond the LGBT film festival ghetto or an increasingly shrinking number of art house venues that are willing to give this genre screen time. And while many of these films fall into a rather predictable boy-meet-boy, occasionally a gay-oriented film rises above the quotidian to provide a mature and intelligent consideration of same-sex love.
Belgian director David Lambert’s 2012 feature “Beyond the Walls” is a moving study of a casual affair that goes deeply and intensely in the wrong direction, leaving both participants in worse shape after the proverbial flame has gone out. Illir (Guilluame Golix) is an Albanian bartender who moonlights with a rock band as a bass player. He is satisfied with being single and is not actively looking for love. Paulo (Matila Malliarakis) plays the piano accompaniment for a silent movie cinema and lives with a girlfriend who runs a boutique. Paulo gets drunk one night at Ilir’s bar while out with his friends – but his comrades abandon him, leaving Ilir to drag him back to his flat. Paulo wakes up the next morning with initial confusion, but is immediately smitten with Ilir. Although Ilir’s feelings are not mutual, he finds the boyish and somewhat silly Paulo entertaining and they start a very casual affair.
When Paulo’s girlfriend discovers he has been unfaithful, she kicks him out. The homeless Paulo arrives at Ilir’s flat with his belongings – much to Ilir’s unhappiness, because he has been closeted about his sexuality. Indeed, he is so uptight that he violently berates Paulo for suggesting any public sign of affection. But Ilir begins to loosen up about his identity and his feelings to Paulo, and he even engages Paulo’s whim about being locked in a metal chastity device.
All seems to be going in the right direction, until Ilir is arrested and jailed on a drug charge. Paulo, unable to help Ilir and incapable of supporting himself, soon becomes the lover of a middle-aged sex shop owner with a penchant for BDSM. When Ilir is finally released from jail, the men’s situations have switched: Ilir is now homeless and adrift while Paulo has become uptight and reserved while enjoying the material comforts of his new relationship.
For straight audiences that are not comfortable watching two men making love, “Beyond the Walls” will not create offense – one furtive kiss quickly fades to a blurry visage, and there is almost no on-screen physical contact despite a great deal of talk about romance and sex. But viewers of any persuasion will be intrigued by the film’s rueful journey of mismatched lovers whose bond fails to survive the tests placed on it. Especially effective are the scenes where Paulo visits Ilir in prison – the former is quickly thrust into a long overdue growing up while the latter bears the physical and emotional agony of incarceration.
It is mostly a two-man film, and Golix and Malliarakis do a fine job in capturing the evolving emotions that shape their characters. Lambert’s screenplay and direction are remarkably subtle, with only one moment when things hit the wrong note (Ilir’s commandeering of a supermarket intercom to announce he is buying condoms for a night with Paulo – the brief moment is not as amusing as Lambert may have imagined).
“Beyond the Walls” is a work of intelligence that should have seen more attention by wider audiences. It is still circulating on DVD and via streaming services, and it needs to be appreciated.