We swore we get these last few up this week or not at all, by gum.
Jacques VergÃ¨s, a famous, infamous French lawyer, is the focus of Barbet Schroeder‘s dense documentary "Terror’s Advocate." If it didn’t summon lingering memories of Al Pacino bellowing that God is a tight-ass and a sadist, "The Devil’s Advocate" would really be a better English title. VergÃ¨s has made his name defending the seemingly indefensible, among them Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie, terrorist Carlos the Jackal, and, he’s claimed, Slobodan MiloÅ¡eviÄ‡. Schroeder seems to harbor an unflattering opinion of VergÃ¨s, though the film is no an easy hatchet job. Schroeder once let Idi Amin damn himself by "directing" his own documentary self-portrait. Here, VergÃ¨s, dapper and cigar-smoking, is also a cheery and willing participant, but while Schroeder traces his life through warrens of high-profile courtroom trials, international terrorist incidences and moral relativism, VergÃ¨s remains an elusive and unplumbable figure.
VergÃ¨s went from being an anticolonialist student activist to being the young lawyer sent to defend Djamila Bouhired, a member of the Algerian National Liberation Front. Using what would become his signature "rupture defense," in which he attacks the very social structures supporting the trial, together with an international media campaign, he freed her and later married her and, still later, left her to vanish off the grid from 1970-78. His whereabouts
during the time are still unknown, though the most popular theory is
that he was advising Pol Pot in Cambodia. He’s twinkly-eyed and dissembling about it all, even as he goes on to described wooing later client Magdalena Kopp, the wife of terrorist Carlos the Jackal, by smuggling Armagnac into prison to pour on her holiday treat, ice cream.
VergÃ¨s is almost a fantastical figure, a besuited legal representative who seems to have stepped out of the chaotic multinational ether on behalf of terrorists and ousted dictators the world over. At times he seems to be motivated by righteous belief in the cause he represents, other times by the attention or the sheer challenge. His slightly demonic cast is abetted by the fact that he’s been connected to so many major figures in the last four decades of international unrest that "Terror’s Advocate" actually dissolves under its own weight. To give context to VergÃ¨s’ life to date, the film races through reams of background delivered by a variety of talking heads. At almost 2 1/2 hours, it’s at once not nearly enough and far too much — an avalanche of ill-shaped information that obliterates Schroeder’s end goals. If this is a portrait of VergÃ¨s, it’s an interesting, muddied, unsatisfying one. If it’s a Cliffs Notes of contemporary terrorism, its attempting the impossible for a feature film.
Magnolia Pictures will release "Terror’s Advocate" in the US.