Film Review: Carlos

Edgar Ramirez as Carlos Photograph: Carole Bethuel

The makers of ‘Carlos’ are honest enough to admit a slight problem with their biopic of Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, AKA ‘Carlos the Jackal.’ Even with extensive research there are still a number of grey areas in the life of this notorious terrorist, aspirant revolutionary and unlikely celebrity. So many, in fact, that we are asked to treat ‘Carlos’ as a work of fiction. We know some of the facts like what happened and where, but the man himself, currently incarcerated in a French prison, remains an enigma.

If you have a hole in your schedule big enough to accommodate the full five and a half hour version of ‘Carlos’, originally made as a mini-series for French TV, then perhaps you will get a fuller picture of the man himself, but I doubt it. What I have seen is the pared down two and a half hour cut of the film which will constitute the general cinema and DVD release. This ‘Carlos’ is an impressive work, even if the fact that it has been truncated is sometimes obvious. It would be difficult for it to be otherwise. The shorter version comes across as a sort of ‘greatest hits’ compilation, which given its lead character’s record is quite apt.

The film skips any mention of Carlos’ childhood as we first encounter him fresh out of training camp and joining up with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. In 1973, he was sent to London on his debut mission, the assassination of Joseph Sieff, who was the then Chairman of Marks and Spencer’s. This was not an example of extreme consumer action; the hit was ordered as Sieff was Vice President of the British Zionist Federation. This became a botched job, the first of several for Carlos, who does not seem to have been all that proficient at his deadly vocation.

In Paris, two years later, Carlos moved swiftly up the most wanted list after shooting two policemen. In 1975, he carried out his most audacious operation which the film spends a comparatively large amount of time on. This was the occupation of an OPEQ conference in Vienna and the kidnapping of the assembled delegates. According to the film, the crime was carried out at the behest of Saddam Hussein as part of a plan to raise oil prices and, therefore, generate enough money to wage war on the Kurds. What began as an outrage turned into near-farce as Carlos and his team flew off on a DC -9 with their forty-two hostages but, for various reasons, found that they were unable to reach their planned destination. In the end, Carlos traded the hostages for cash and his own freedom, an action which saw him expelled from the PFLP. It was the start of a long fall for the Jackal.

‘Carlos’ is an ambitious and impressive achievement on the part of director Oliver Assayas and his co-writer Dan Franck. The film’s narrative skips around the globe like a violent travel show, with the dialogue switching from English to French to Spanish according to the location. Many years of international intrigue and incident are crammed into the storyline. In the short version, the necessary temporal ellipses are pronounced with some characters popping up for a short time then quickly disappearing. When we are in the autumn days of the Jackal, events really start to motor. One minute Carlos is up to hanky panky in a hotel room with a young girl, the next they are joined together in a failing marriage and have a young child.

The film is overtly stylised in some scenes, lending Carlos a coolness that he probably does not deserve. Or perhaps it is a more a reflection of his youthful excitement at the prospect of being part of an international revolution that never happened. He is portrayed as having an almost fetishist love of weaponry, with the film containing perhaps the first example of hand grenade erotica. Carlos was a man of ideology as well as action but it was the latter which held sway over him. “Behind every bullet,” he announces , “is an idea.” But a murderer with ideas is still a murderer.

Edgar Ramirez – who is from Venezuela like Carlos himself – is powerful and magnetic in the lead role. You can believe that he would inspire others to follow him to their possible death. With little knowledge of Carlos the man to work with he gives us Carlos the zealous but flawed politico. The actor undergoes a physical transformation from the De Niro ‘Raging Bull’ school, baring all as a young terrorist who is lean and muscular and later piling on the weight as the older has been whose services as a killing tool are no longer required.

By far the most interesting aspect of ‘Carlos’ is in showing how historical destiny can be decided by ambitious men with an insufficient sense of morality. The film even suggests that future Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, then head of the KGB, requested the killing of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Whether that is true or not I have no idea but then there is, no doubt, many a dirty deed perpetrated by governments which we shall never know about. The world has changed a lot since Carlos the Jackal’s reign of terror but one imagines that his modern equivalents are out there today waiting to write their name in blood across the history books.

About Alan Diment

Is a freelance writer and film critic. A total film buff who lives and breathes movies.

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