Friday, November 5, 2010


by James McNally on November 5, 2010

in Theatrical Release


Carlos (Director: Olivier Assayas): The pro­spect of sit­ting down to watch a 330-minute film is always a little bit daunting, but luckily I found myself at the TIFF Bell Lightbox’s largest aud­it­orium, sur­rounded by only 6 other brave souls. In this luxe envir­on­ment, and for­ti­fied by two inter­mis­sions, I let Assayas’ tele­vi­sion min­iseries envelop me like the cine­matic epic it’s being sold as on this side of the pond.

I grew up in the 1970s, and so the story of Carlos “the Jackal” was already familiar to me. Lest the younger gen­er­a­tion think that ter­rorism was invented on 9/11, let me remind them that the 1970s was a crazy time indeed. Europe was wracked by polit­ical ter­rorism from rad­ical groups like the Red Brigades in Italy, the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany, and the Irish Republican Army in Ireland and the UK. The Palestinian issue was also par­tic­u­larly hot, with groups like the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) and the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) car­rying out attacks in Europe as well as in the Middle East. Even Japan had its own homegrown rad­icals, the Japanese Red Army. In these Cold War times, the Soviet Union was happy to clandes­tinely fund the mayhem, just as the Western gov­ern­ments funded dis­sid­ents in the Eastern Bloc nations. I’m not even going to men­tion the proxy wars car­ried out in Africa and Latin America.

With so many little fires burning, it seemed only a matter of time before someone arrived to try to con­nect them together. Carlos (real name Ilich Ramírez Sánchez) was the son of Venezuelan Marxists and had been edu­cated in Moscow before launching him­self as a ter­rorist. Pledging his fealty first to Wadie Haddad and the PFLP, Carlos begins the film with his older girl­friend and her son in a settled life in London, where his cover is giving Spanish les­sons. During dinner at an upscale res­taurant, he argues with her that they need to stop talking about revolu­tion and get involved. Even in this early con­ver­sa­tion, he’s talking about glory and his girl­friend right­fully sees that his mon­strous ego is at odds with his revolu­tionary prin­ciples. The set­ting is also telling, for Carlos has a love for the good life that he never bothers to recon­cile with his avowed hatred for the cap­it­alist system.

I don’t want to spend the entire review providing plot sum­mary, but I must men­tion that there is a lot of it to sum­marize. There is so much ground to cover that for the first two hours, I was dis­ap­pointed slightly by the lack of char­ac­ter­iz­a­tion. But by hour three, we’re coming to realize that Carlos is an insuf­fer­able idiot, puffed up with vanity and blind to his own ignor­ance of geo­pol­it­ical forces. His appet­ites for booze and sex lead him to treat the women around him with con­tempt, even as they serve as safe havens when he’s on the run. As the film pro­gresses, Carlos starts to enjoy his growing celebrity in the Western press. He gives speeches to host­ages about who he is during ter­rorist oper­a­tions, even signing an auto­graph in one case. The funny thing about his spec­tac­ular rise is that he’s actu­ally not a very effective sol­dier. He botches most of his oper­a­tions and when he ends up releasing host­ages taken during his biggest oper­a­tion (the storming of the OPEC con­fer­ence in Vienna in December 1975), Haddad cuts him loose from the PFLP.

Vowing to start up his own group, he recruits a few loy­al­ists with whom he’s worked in the past. Chief among them is Johannes Weinrich from the German Revolutionary Brigades, and his former girl­friend Magdalena Kopp, who even­tu­ally becomes Carlos’ wife. They set up house first in East Berlin and then in Budapest, where they try to enlist gov­ern­ment sup­port for their group. Carlos talks a lot about plans for oper­a­tions, but never seems to get much done. A KGB-backed plan to assas­sinate Egyptian President Anwar el Sadat gest­ates for years before the Muslim Brotherhood beats Carlos to the punch in 1981. All the while, Carlos is living like a mafia don, sur­rounding him­self with luxury and sup­ple­menting his rela­tion­ship with the beau­tiful Magdalena with visits to pros­ti­tutes and affairs with other women. After another botched oper­a­tion in 1982 involving a car bombing in Paris, Magdalena is arrested and imprisoned, and Carlos flees to Syria where he lies low for sev­eral years.

In 1990, Syria, newly-allied with the US, asks Carlos to leave the country. Failing to find a wel­come in Libya, he ends up in Sudan. By this time, Magdalena has given birth to their daughter, but has decided to leave Carlos and return to live with his mother in Venezuela. Carlos takes up with another woman and lives his usual extra­vagant life­style, cour­tesy of the Sudanese gov­ern­ment. All the while, his former allies in the Syrian gov­ern­ment are seeking to sell inform­a­tion on his where­abouts to the highest bidder. Eventually, the French gov­ern­ment decides to bring him back to France and put him on trial, and the end of the film shows his very undig­ni­fied capture.

Some reviewers have remarked that the final third “sags” a bit, but in the arc of Carlos’ life, that is only nat­ural. His spec­tac­ular rise in the 1970s was fol­lowed by a long, slow decline, par­tially due to his own weak­nesses but mostly due to the shifting polit­ical forces that in the end made him irrel­evant. His inflated sense of self-importance grows to look ever more pathetic as his base of oper­a­tions keeps shifting to smaller and more insig­ni­ficant loc­a­tions. It also makes his bour­geois life­style stand out in even sharper relief when he men­tions his solid­arity with the oppressed. In the end, the first celebrity ter­rorist was nothing more than a con­struct of his own fantasies and those of the media he loved to court.

In his por­trayal of Carlos, I must salute Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez, who was able to pro­ject an out-of-control ego in Spanish, English, French, German and Arabic. He also had to gain weight, lose it, and gain it again as Carlos’ life­style and age take their toll. Although he is not playing a very sym­path­etic char­acter (this is not Che, after all), Ramirez holds nothing back, giving every one of Carlos’ ridicu­lous utter­ances his full conviction.

Although this was ori­gin­ally con­ceived as a three-part tele­vi­sion min­iseries, there are sev­eral advant­ages to seeing it all at once. Chiefly, I really did come to see how much of a fraud this man was and my annoy­ance level after five hours was impress­ively high. As well, seeing one ter­rorist attack after another, whether botched or “suc­cessful,” drove home the com­plete and utter sense­less­ness of trying to effect polit­ical change using these methods. These pathetic little people, whether ideal­ists or sociopaths, are so far removed from the cor­ridors of power that they’re used and dis­carded with little regard by the polit­ical players of the world, and to whose ranks they’ll never be admitted.

In that sense, Assayas’ film, so broad in scope and full of details, may end up sticking with me much longer than I ini­tially thought.

P.S. In case you are thinking that the film will be a 5.5 hour slog through sense­less viol­ence and raging ego, I will point out a few delights. First, Nora von Waldstätten, who plays Magdalena Kopp, is a porcelain-skinned beauty with a pro­nounced allergy to brassi­eres. She was always a pleasure to look at, and I hope to see her in more films. Second, Assayas pop­u­lates the soundtrack with some inspired, though unusual, songs from the punk and post­punk eras. If you’re a fan of The Feelies, Wire or A Certain Ratio, the soundtrack will keep you smiling.



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