Borderlands (Zev Berman, 2007): 6.5/10

The Magic Flute (Ingmar Bergman, 1975): 7/10

La Guerre Est Finie (Alain Resnais, 1966): 7/10

Speed Racer (The Wachowski Brothers, 2008): 8/10

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Monday, March 10, 2008

Terror's Advocate (Barbet Schroeder, 2007)

You probably haven't heard of Jacques Verges, but you almost definitely have heard of some of the people he's defended in court: Djamila Bouhired, Algerian nationalist bomber; Klaus Barbie, Nazi "Butcher of Lyon"; Magdalena Kopp, Baader-Meinhoff gang member; and Slobodan Molosevic, former president of Serbia and Yugoslavia. Verges earned the titular nickname defending all these people, though not because of some idealistic notion that everyone needs defending. In fact, director/narrator Barbet Schroeder (whom I really admire) doesn't force the question, and instead, Verges gives a few vague answers, mostly tied to French atrocities in the Algerian war. Schroeder's ridiculously passive approach to this film is really its downfall, although it does also lead to some intriguing moments.

Verges gets involved as a French law student in communist action, then is recruited to defend Bouhired, among others, from killing French citizens in a series of bombings. He becomes very sympathetic to the cause, and outrageous in the courtroom. The first half or so of the film is dedicated to the Algerian cause, and we see first-hand the events from Battle of Algiers. Verges also has a hero complex, it seems, as he marries (and eventually deserts) Bouhired, and does the same later in his life with Kopp. Patronizing heroism aside, Verges is deeply passionate about his beliefs, and in present-day interviews, still comes off as so. But once we get past about 1970 chronologically, Verges all but refuses to talk about anything in his life. He disappeared from 1970-1978, but won't say where he was or what he was doing, even after 30 years. Some suggest he was with Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and Verges admits being friends with Pol Pot, but, again, Schroeder never calls him on this. It would have been fascinating to see this confident, articulate man defend what we now know was a brutal regime. Neither will he really say why he defended Barbie (except to remind the court, in the 80s, about French atrocities in Algeria), and when we find out he defended certain people who were directly against his beliefs (an African warlord, notorious terrorist Carlos the Jackal), still no explanation. Verges just sits behind a huge desk, smug after all these years. He actually infuriate me for the most part.

Schroeder really lets Verges off the hook in this film, refusing to ever make him face his mistakes. Perhaps Verges just refused to have these things discussed, but it really takes away from what could have been an amazingly revealing documentary. One more minor problem I had: although the political situations around the people Verges defended were complicated and intricately interwoven (one of the most interesting things about the film is how every "terrorist" network in the world is interconnected, especially the Nazi-Palestinian connection, which I never considered and makes me uncomfortable in my beliefs), there was far too much backstory in this film for it to have any flow whatsoever. This is a great disappointment from the great Schroeder, even more so considering what this film could have been.


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