The term “epic” often gets bandied around to describe movies that don’t really fit the description. But Olivier Assayas’ Carlos is the real deal – a 51/2 hour narrative, with more than 100 speaking parts, in eight languages, covering two decades in the life of Ilich Ramirez Sanchez (Edgar Ramirez), better known as the terrorist Carlos the Jackal. Born in Venezuela, educated in Cuba and Moscow, and devoted to Marxism, Carlos – Ilich’s self-imposed nom de guerre – begins his career as a hard line idealist, aligning himself with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) as a way to strike a blow against western Imperialism, the enemy he proclaimed to be his life-long foe.
Beginning with a literal bang in 1973 Paris, when a car bomb takes out a PLFP agent, Carlos delves deep into the ignominious career of its titular subject. Although director Assayas (Irma Vep, Demonlover, Summer Hours), continuing to display a wholly unpredictable artistic palette, opens with the film with a title card labeling it as a work of fiction, a lot of what we see – the day-to-day machinations of grassroots terrorism, the exploitation of small-time criminals by world superpowers, the precise methods to carry out kidnapping raids – has the ring of documentary truth.
Big chunks of the film are devoted to some of Ilich’s most notorious assassinations, bombings and crimes, such as his siege on the OPEC delegation in 1975 Vienna on the orders of his PFLP commander Wadid Haddad (Ahmad Kaabour), rumored to have been handed down by Saddam Hussein. The raid and ensuing hostage standoff consume nearly 90 minutes of screen time – practically a stand-alone movie – but Assayas’ extended and detailed reenactment places you inside that horrible room, and later in an airplane sitting on a runway, as the tension mounts and the terrorists must contend with the reality that their demands are not going to be met.
Ramirez, in a bravura performance that will no doubt be ignored by Oscar voters, doesn’t so much put us inside Ilich’s head as make us bask in the man’s vanity and grandeur (the pop music artists heard during certain montages, from The Feelies to New Order, are part of the soundtrack playing inside his self-enamored head). The movie also details Ilich’s multitude of romantic relationships, the most critical being his marriage to German revolutionary Magdalena Kopp (Nora von Waldsatten), who refused to be manhandled the way Ilich liked to treat his women.
His world view is a frightening one – a volatile landscape in which heads of state negotiate with terrorists, the same way the CIA has been known to cooperate with revolutionaries. When the head of the KGB meets with Ilich and other members of his group and promises “unlimited financial support” to whoever can assassinate Egyptian president Anwar El Sadat, you see these criminals for what they really are: Pawns used by forces that could squash them in an instant, but instead employ them to shovel their dirt.
Ilich either doesn’t realize he’s being used or intentionally takes a half-full approach, using the offer as a validation of his own righteousness. Working alongside German terrorist cells and the Japanese Red Army, he’s constantly spouting ideology that eventually begins to sound like anti-Semitism. He uses his political stance to mask his hatred, yet remains a charismatic and fascinating figure – a seductive hypocrite.
Originally made as a French TV miniseries to be shown in three parts, Carlos is being released theatrically in the United States as one long film, a la Che, a man whose ethics and image Ilich aspires to, right down to the iconic beret. But Ilich lacked the Argentine revolutionary’s conviction: Guevara would have never whined “I’m a soldier! I’m not a martyr!” when backed into a corner in which the only options were suicide or defeat.
A shorter cut of the movie, running 2 hours and 45 minutes, is also being distributed, but part of the accomplishment of Carlos is the sheer accumulation of detail the movie amasses, and the longer running time gives you a deeper sense of the terrorist lifestyle, and when and why Ilich gradually succumbed to ego and self-glorification without realizing it. By the end of Carlos, the once-proud and vain warrior who stood naked in front of a mirror, admiring himself, has been reduced to a fat nobody, persona non grata the world over, crippled by a testicular condition and treated like a common thug — which is, for all his pomposity, exactly what he was, really. He just got lucky a few times.
Cast: Edgar Ramirez, Alexander Scheer, Alejandro Arroyo, Christoph Bach, Ahmad Kaabour, Nora von Waldsatten, Juana Acosta
Director: Olivier Assayas
Screenwriters: Olivier Assayas, Dan Franck
Producer: Daniel Leconte
An IFC Films release. Running time: 330 minutes. In multiple languages with English subtitles. Vulgar language, violence, gore, nudity, sexual situations, adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: Cosford.