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Starring: Édgar Ramírez, Alexander Scheer, Alejandro Arroyo, Ahmad Kaabour, Talal El-Jordi, Juana Acosta
The story of Venezuelan revolutionary Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, who founded a worldwide terrorist organization and raided the 1975 OPEC meeting.
Terrorism isn't what you think it is. Or more precisely it is only what you think it is, the reality being a mixture of mishaps, paranoia, miscommunication and often lofty goals with little in the way of actual achievement, letting what few successes it has carry out imaginations away. In the rush to demonize assailants as evil geniuses and other comic book-type super villains it's easy to forget that they are human beings, not as a measure of connection to the rest of society so much as a measure of the vast failings they are easily capable of.
It's a reality director Olivier Assayas ("Irma Vep") and his lead actor, Édgar Ramírez, have perfectly captured in their immense, detailed recreation of the life and activities of Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, the Venezuelan terrorist known to the world as "Carlos."
Originally produced as a mini-series for French television, "Carlos" is as ambitious as its subject, covering the sprawling world of international terrorism and revealing its banality all with a firm eye on the human emotions and thinking that motivate it.
From the early 1970s until the early 1990s, Carlos—later known as Carlos the Jackal in the European press—was one of the most wanted men in the world for the part he played in a variety of terrorist acts, most notably his raid on a meeting of OPEC leaders in Vienna in 1975 and the extended hostage crisis which followed.
Though created for television, to brush Assayas production aside as a high-value mini-series is to discredit him and his film for a remarkable achievement. While IFC Films has created a lean 140-minute version of Assayas' epic that catches all of the highlights and much humanity, but the difference between it and the full length cut is the difference between night and day. Each part is capable of standing on its own, with the second chapter focusing almost entirely on the assault on Vienna and its aftermath, but once you start it, it's very hard to stop.
Shot with scope, imagination and flare, the full version of "Carlos" is a fantastic cinematic achievement, only showing its limitations during the few times it tries something highly visual, like a rocket attack on a departing airliner. These happenstances are few and far between, however, as Assayas has wisely kept his focus on Carlos the man, turning to his plot entirely as a means for developing and explaining Carlos as a character.
And he is a tremendous character. It's easy to understand the media fascination with him in his day. Charismatic, boasting, dangerous, Ramírez has created him as a truly Byronic hero. He believes in himself so much he is able to not only conceive of such grand schemes as attacking airliners, murdering diplomats and staging a full on assault in the middle of western Europe, he easily brings many others along with him. He constantly carries an air of intrigue and danger with him, and speaks often of the larger ideals he has the strength to stay true to where others do not.
But underneath that lies something else again, and it's the underneath that Assayas and Ramírez are really interested in. Barbara Tuchman once wrote about the banality of evil when it is looked on for what it really is. While she may have been writing about the Nazis, she may as well have been talking about Carlos. He is vain and boasting and endlessly selfish. And while he spins much of his professional life trying to take responsibility for horrendous acts, he spends most of private time trying to avoid it. He whines fruitlessly about how his numerous failed missions were really successful. An inveterate womanizer, with a string of affairs and broken relationships behind him, when a colleague accuses him of stealing his wife, he helplessly replies 'it's the woman's choice, right?'
The real chart of "Carlos" depth and epic nature is the way it is able to capture the man in all of his un-majesty.
It is also tremendously unsatisfactory, in the best of ways, staying true to the real life it is interested in and avoiding the temptation to add to the narrative, to move pieces around and create circular dynamics that while not exactly accurate are more classically dynamic. "Carlos" may begin as a taut political thriller but eventually it winds down into a meandering confluence of bureaucracy and selfishness. This is not due to a failing of imagination from the filmmakers; this is the way life works. It is never neat and tidy with a firm conclusion and idyllic narrative structure. That's what we go to the movies for.
The great ideals Carlos once spouted give way to a string of mistresses and escapes from the law, his allies turn away because its just convenient to do so, and for the most part he is largely forgotten, an anachronism of a former time who refuses to admit the world has moved past him and is simultaneously powerless to do anything about it.
Which is really the great truth of Carlos, and terrorism in general. For all the talk of mission and purpose and what he can cause to happen to those who stand against him, ultimately he represents nothing more than complete powerlessness of one man to effect the world around him. Though he can trick it for a time into believing otherwise, he can never entirely fool himself, leaving behind rage at the lack of power, but no real idea what to do with all that rage.