There must be a fascinating flow-chart in the links between modern terrorism and Jacques Verges: Imagine the notorious lawyer at the center of a vast and intricate set of lines connecting Algerian freedom fighters to the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine to Pol Pot to Germany’s Red Army Faction to Carlos “The Jackal,” and you’ll have some idea of the ambitious, yet confused diagram that is Barbet Schroeder‘s latest documentary.
Running at 132 minutes (shaved slightly from its Cannes premiere), “Terror’s Advocate” is an exhaustive, sometimes exhausting, study of the infamous man. The son of a Vietnamese mother and French father from Africa’s Reunion Island — “born at war, born angry, and born colonized,” says one journalist – Verges began his political life as a Communist and a fierce anti-colonialist. As a controversial lawyer for members of Algeria’s National Liberation Front, the film is tightest in chronicling Verges’ early years fighting on behalf of Algerian icon Djamila Bouhired, whom he later married, and Zohra Drif, known for planting the “Milk-Bar” bomb immortalized in Gilles Pontocorvo‘s “The Battle of Algiers,” from which Schroeder liberally borrows.
The film opens, however, with Verges speaking about the Khmer Rouge. As an introduction, it is meant to taunt and tantalize: “The genocide was unintentional,” says Verges, with a smirk, while sitting comfortably behind a large desk in a baroque brown study. “The mass graves don’t tally with the number of victims.” With such preposterous legal-speak, Schroeder immediately positions Verges as an unreliable narrator, cutting between his surprising remarks and the cracked skull of one of Pol Pot’s victims, as if to say, this is a charming, mischievous man who is not to be trusted.
Clearly, Schroeder admires Verges as a character. Smug and erudite, either puffing contentedly on cigars or offering shit-eating grins, he is as vain and arrogant as he is a political provocateur. As some of Verges’ admirers note, he could have been a terrorist himself had he not such a fondness for fine cuisine and vintage Bordeaux.
No doubt, Verges is a notable and worthy subject, fascinating, withholding, never short of witty provocations – “Would he defend Hitler?,” asks an interviewer. “I’d even defend Bush as long as he pleaded guilty,” he replies in the film’s most repeated quote. He’s also full of contradictions (was he a double-agent?) and lies (did he, in fact, aid terrorist acts?). And as the film goes on, the gap between what Verges says and what is probably the truth increasingly diverge. (You have to wonder what Errol Morris would have made of Verges.)
But the film’s combination of investigative portrait and terrorism history fails to hold together. Bouncing around from Verges’ involvement with Christian-Palestinian terrorist mastermind Waddi Haddad to Swiss Nazi ringleader Francois Genoud to the Khmer Rouge to international criminal Carlos “The Jackal,” the film either loses its focus or glosses over the important. Verges’ infamous defense of Nazi torturer Klaus Barbie, for example, is set up as a piece of grand political theater, but we never see Verges’s skills – or his famous “rupture defense,” in which he mocks the trial itself — in action.
Because of all of the famous figures and historical events involved, the film employs several devices to help the viewer keep track: not only are names and dates stamped on the screen, but when interviewees speak of a particular person (say Yassir Arafat), their headshot appears in the frame. While the device is helpful, it doesn’t help reign in the film’s loose structure, which by the end, feels rushed and underdeveloped. Most surprisingly are the film’s final scenes: With such rich and incendiary material, “Terror’s Advocate” surprisingly fizzles out with a whimper, rather than a bang.