“What’re you rebelling against, Johnny?” “Whaddya got?” – Marlon Brando, The Wild One.
Expect the unexpected in Carlos, which opens with a car bomb explosion followed by a TV news recap as New Order’s “Dreams Never End” churns on the film’s soundtrack. Welcome to the world of Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (aka Carlos the Jackal).
Running at five and a half hours and divided into three parts, Carlos is not so much a biopic as it is a chronicle of the rise and fall of the terrorist from 1973 until his capture in the 1994. In a title card, director Assayas states that the film is fiction since Carlos’s exploits and his life contain many grey areas.
The French post-punk auteur’s film is part Bourne Trilogy as a political thriller and part Steven Soderbergh’s Che in length and revolutionary causes. And yet, it is its own magnificent beast.
By centering on Carlos (Ramírez), the film brings into play the various armed militant cells that operated during the cold war era. The son of Venezuelan Marxists, Carlos, despite his degree in economics from Moscow University, turns to armed militancy and the ranks of the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) after proving his mettle in the related terrorist group Black September Organization. Carlos initially fumbles: a grenade rocket launcher positioned to bring down an Israeli El-Al plane hits a Yugoslav one and another militant group takes credit.
Meanwhile, the magnet for young women radicals (Carlos’ kinky idea of seduction often includes a loaded gun and a grenade) receives his harshest retribution from an activist girlfriend. She chides him for not showing solidarity for Chile at a protest march. He retorts: “I am committed to resistance, but words get us no where; it’s time for action. You think Latin American dictators act alone? Look what happened to Che. The gringo still wins.” She boldly responds, “Is glory all you want? Che is dead, and he had more experience than us. You’re an arrogant bourgeois shit hiding behind revolutionary rhetoric.”
Toward the end of part one, during a gripping shoot-out surrounding a Parisian PFLP safe house, Carlos’ arrogant rhetoric gives way to a plainly mercenary lifestyle. After shooting “an Arab who betrayed me,” Carlos promises, “I will kill anyone who betrays me.” This cold-blooded ruthlessness becomes his M.O.
Part two furthers Carlos’ distance from his former ideals. During a brutal attack of OPEC headquarters in Vienna, Carlos and his German and Lebanese commandos take 60 hostages. But his soldiers rebel when Carlos refuses to follow a PFLP directive to execute two OPEC officials and instead accepts $20 million in “capitalist” ransom.
Called to answer for the failure of his mission, Carlos, who has made global headlines, is ousted by the PLFP chief (the cold and excellent Kaabour): “I don’t need celebrities in my cause. You are just an executioner — and not a very good one.”
Striking out on his own, Carlos find the international community eager to use his services. And while it’s their causes he believes he is advancing, in actuality his guns are for hire to the highest bidder, including Saddam Hussein.
Carlos ultimately becomes blinded by his own aura, his supposed invincibility, and his failure as a true revolutionary. He becomes fond of using a flashy moniker, “My name is Carlos. You might have heard of me.” His downfall is grandly portrayed in part three, which centers on the Jackal’s capture.
Throughout the film, Ramírez amazes in his metamorphosis from a lean and mean, devilishly handsome Latino to a corpulent embarrassment to himself and his bosses. Ramírez has the intensity of a De Niro and the magnetism of a Brando or a Bardem. In a public letter to Ramírez, the real Carlos, serving a life sentence in a French prison, cautioned the young actor: “Fame is fleeting media attention. It cannot replace respect, honor, reality.”
One of the longest, and also one of the best, films of 2010, consider Carlos an excellent primer on the rise of terrorism and the fall of a man who sold the world.
Carlos is available for cable subscribers of the Sundance Channel but hits art theaters next month. It is worth the wait to see it on the big screen.•
Dir. Olivier Assayas; writ. Assayas, Dan Franck; feat. Édgar Ramírez, Martha Higardea, Ahmad Kaabour, Nora Von Waldstatten.