Renewing his fascination with monsters of modern times, Barbet Schroeder has created a weighty, wide-ranging portrait of devil's advocate Jacques Verges. It could also stand as a complex guide through the rise and rise of global terrorism.
The controversial subject matter and Schroeder's track record with such figures (Idi Amin, Claus Von Bulow, Charles Bukowski, etc) should make this a potent domestic attraction in France and further afield, although internationally its strongest potential may lie in ancillary markets with a strong afterlife in television and DVD sales.
Now in his early 80s, Verges first came to prominence as the lawyer who defended and subsequently married Djamila Bouried, the woman arrested after the Algerian bombings that sparked the country's move towards independence from French rule in the 1950s. Interviews with Verges painted a fairly sympathetic image of an idealistic young man who had enlisted to fight with De Gaulle during the Second World War and subsequently became an active campaigner against colonial rule and its guilty aftermath.
In many respects, Terror's Advocate is a conventional talking heads documentary that builds into a compelling, jigsaw-puzzle of a thriller reminiscent of a Frederick Forsyth bestseller or an epic drama like Spielberg's Munich . Interviews, archive news footage, documents and journalistic speculation are persuasively combined into a film that refuses to judge Verges but allows the audience to draw its own conclusions.
An implacable figure, smugly impervious to criticism or flattery, Verges is never likely to break down and confess to any misdemeanours. He is too much in control of his image and too much a master of his own fate to ever become ruffled. Interviewed in offices and courtrooms, he wields a cigar like an actor making maximum use of a favourite prop.
Uncertainty about his intentions and morality are raised from other quarters. We learn of his involvement with figures like Carlos The Jackal, his decision to defend Klaus Barbie and his assertion that he would willingly defend George Bush on the condition that Bush was pleading guilty. He is an engaging figure and a man of immense charm and there appears to be a consistency to his actions. He defends the indefensible, argues the cause of terrorists by exposing state terrorism and constantly fights terrorism. The suspicion gradually builds that somewhere along the way a line was crossed and the pursuit of justice has been sacrificed to some less noble aims. One person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter but Verges' numerous links to despots, dictators and serial killers gradually combine to make you fear the avuncular, good-humoured man who dominates this fascinating film.