Carlos The Jackal

Carlos The Jackal


Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

Carlos is three films in one – not just because it is a tripartite miniseries made for TV (although shot in CinemaScope), but because it is also being released in cinemas both in its full 325-minute version and an abridged 165-minute edit. The text that opens the film boasts that it is 'the result of historical and journalistic research', before asserting that nonetheless it 'should be regarded as fiction'. It features hundreds of actors from around the globe, a multitude of international locations and languages, and events that span 20 turbulent years of 20th century history. Which is to say that this is a sprawling, multi-faceted work that both matches, and is embodied, by the elusive, ambiguous nature of its titular protagonist.

Indeed, Carlos is not even his real name. Born to Marxist parents in Venezuela, he was named Ilich Ramírez Sánchez in honour of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin), while his younger brothers were named Lenin and Vladimir – and only later, after having lived in London and studied in Moscow, would he adopt the nom de guerre Carlos, not to mention a number of other aliases, as he entered the stage of international terror in the early 1970s. Carlos (Édgar Ramírez) at first carries out violent, semi-successful European operations under the aegis of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and its co-founder Wadie Haddad (Ahmad Kabour) - but during an Iraq-backed hostage-taking operation at a Viennese gathering of OPEC delegates in 1975 that spins wildly out of control, Carlos learns formative lessons in realpolitik, as well as securing his own mythical status in the popular imagination. Now cast out of the PFLP, he goes independent, offering his questionable services to any regime willing to pay.

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Supported by Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Eastern bloc (where he has several bases), Carlos heads his mercenary operations with Johannes Weinreich (Alexander Scheer), co-founder of Germany's Revolutionary Cells, and Weinreich's then girlfriend, the forger Magdalena Kopp (Nora von Waldstätten). When Kopp, now Carlos' wife, is arrested in a botched Parisian bomb plot in 1982, the Venezuelan begins a campaign of explosive attacks designed purely to get her out of French custody. As it turns out, in 1985 she is instead released early for good behaviour, and rejoins Carlos, now based in Damascus, where they have a baby girl. As the Cold War comes to an end, Carlos is disowned by one Arabic state after another, and left by Kopp. Eventually moving to Khartoum, he remarries – but in 1994 a collaboration between his one-time Syrian allies, the CIA, the French and the local Sudanese authorities sees him kidnapped from hospital and airlifted to France, where three years later, aged 48, he is sentenced to life imprisonment on two counts of murder, with several other trials still pending.

Olivier Assayas' meticulously realised and detailed film is all at once a lesson in geopolitics and the history of terrorism, a deconstruction of mythic heroism, a complex character study, and a gripping action thriller. Ramírez, who shares Carlos' Venezuelan origins, his polyglotism, and even his surname, plays the international militant with a mesmerising blend of narcissism, charisma and arrogant swagger, incarnating the contradictions of a misogynist who would stop at nothing to spring his lover from jail, and of a committed Marxist who would develop a penchant for fine clothes, expensive cars and luxury dwellings.

Carlos is portrayed as a manipulator of his own image – notably affecting Guevara's half-beard, beret and cigar during the OPEC operation – even as he is himself knowingly manipulated by his many handlers. In this world of secrecy, partisanship and extreme action, the punishment for betrayal, as we are repeatedly told, is death - but as situations change and the political ground shifts, everyone ultimately becomes a traitor to their side and to their cause. This is no less true of Carlos himself, who may start out as an anti-imperialist ideologue, but who is soon carrying out actions for the highest bidder, with his revolutionary rhetoric just a smokescreen for personal power and profit – yet even the violent death that he regards as both an inevitability and an entitlement ("my destiny", as he calls it), and that he imagines will bring him further glory, never quite comes. The man who was once all ballsy machismo ends up being taken alive while in hospital for minor testicular surgery. It is an ending of bathetic ignominy for the self-styled hero, who even from jail campaigned (in vain) to stop Assayas' film being made.

It would be all too easy (and lazy) to criticise the full version of Carlos for its unwieldy duration, but while it certainly makes for exhausting viewing, there is never a dull moment, with Assayas maintaining an assured handling of his film's pace throughout. Indeed the writer/director needs all this time to establish the shifting network of associations between different Middle Eastern factions, Soviet states and individual Western radicals – and in many ways his film is in fact a discourse on time and its passing, as a professional killer finds his epic stature gradually squeezed out of him by the tick tick ticking of age and history itself. Now the world has moved on, times have changed, and there is little room left in today's brand of international terrorism for a man who declares: "I am a soldier, not a martyr."

This is bravura filmmaking. It is mobile and muscular, and yet never glorifies its protagonist's callous, pathetic and often hilariously misfiring bids for a place in the annals of history. That place turns out to be, precisely, a prison cell – for unlike Mesrine or Che (who have similarly been treated by recent films of epic length), Carlos goes out not with a bang but an anticlimactic whimper.

Reviewed on: 14 Oct 2010
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A biopic of the mercenary soldier and assassin Carlos the Jackal, his shifting interests in politics and money and his bid to go down in history as a hero.
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Read more Carlos The Jackal reviews:

Owen Van Spall ****

Director: Olivier Assayas

Writer: Olivier Assayas, Dan Franck

Starring: Édgar Ramírez, Alexander Scheer, Nora von Waldstätten, Christopher Bach, Ahmad Kabour, Rodney El-Haddad, Julia Hummer, Rami Farah, Zeid Hamdan, Talal El-Jordi, Fadi Abi Samra, Aljoscha Stadelmann, Katharina Schüttler, Razan Jamal

Year: 2010

Runtime: 325 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: France, Germany


London 2010

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