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Movie Review

The radical who defends war criminals

Jacques Vergès (above), a French lawyer who is the subject of 'Terror's Advocate,' has defended Slobodan Milosevic and Klaus Barbie, among others. Jacques Vergès (above), a French lawyer who is the subject of "Terror's Advocate," has defended Slobodan Milosevic and Klaus Barbie, among others. (magnolia pictures)
Email|Print| Text size + By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / November 9, 2007

For just a moment, ignore politics. Consider Jacques Vergès simply as star. The radical French lawyer is an absolutely compelling figure onscreen: exotic, resolute, beguilingly smug. He holds the screen with an effortless authority Gerard Depardieu might envy.

Of course, it's impossible to ignore politics where Vergès is concerned. It's because of politics that he's the subject of Barbet Schroeder's absorbing documentary, "Terror's Advocate." (In French, avocat means both attorney and advocate.) At once biography, spy thriller, and moral meditation, the film raises an acute if unanswerable question: At what point does idealism become nihilism - or worse?

Vergès, 82, has spent more than half a century outraging establishment opinion. He has defended a clientele that runs the ethical gamut from righteous (Algerian anti-colonialists) to monstrous (Slobodan Milosevic). "It was exhilarating," Vergès says of defending the Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie. A mob lawyer should be so candid - or morally detached.

The son of a Vietnamese mother and French diplomat father, Vergès fought with the Free French in World War II and then took up the law. "It's not an odious profession," he remarks, "that's all one can say." Odiousness is as odiousness does.

A fierce anti-imperialism drew Vergès to the Algerian cause. He represented members of the Algerian National Liberation Front in several high-profile trials that helped reveal the French military's use of torture. "Morally, the use of torture was a terrible defeat," Vergès observes. American viewers can make their own inferences from that remark.

After Algerian independence, Vergès became involved in the Palestinian cause. Then, from 1970-78, he vanished. Did he take refuge in Pol Pot's Cambodia? (Vergès and the Khmer Rouge leader knew each other as students in Paris.) Was he secretly an agent of the French - or East Germans? Perhaps he was simply on the lam from creditors.

Vergès's reemergence saw his clientele grow increasingly beyond the pale: the Red Army Faction, Iranian assassination squads, Carlos the Jackal. Carlos, whom we hear interviewed by telephone, is among several other voices heard in "Terror's Advocate." Appreciating what a mesmerizing protagonist he has in Vergès, Schroeder sets him off with other talking heads, archival footage, and news video.

"Terror's Advocate," in a sense, conjoins Schroeder's two best-known films: the documentary "General Idi Amin Dada" (1974), and the feature "Reversal of Fortune" (1990), an adaptation of Alan Dershowitz's book about the Claus von Bulow case. Outrageous controversialist meets brilliant attorney, and fact intertwines with fiction. It's a mark of Schroeder's scrupulousness that he leaves it up to the viewer to draw the line between the two in Vergès' performance, a star turn every bit as memorable - and troubling - as Amin's in the one and Jeremy Irons' von Bulow in the other.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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