The release of French director Olivier Assayas’ Carlos – an exhilarating epic chronicling the career of ‘superstar terrorist’ Carlos the Jackal – is one of the cinematic events of 2010. Made in three parts for French television, it’s showing in UK cinemas in two different versions, one lasting 165 minutes, the other clocking in at over five and a half hours. The full-length cut is highly recommended.
Billed as fiction based on actual events, Carlos begins in 1973 with the twentysomething Venezulean-born Ilich Ramirez Sanchez (Edgar Ramirez) – who takes ‘Carlos’ as his nom-de-guerre – travelling to Beirut to enlist in Waddi Haddad’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). While operating in Europe for the PFLP, Carlos is entrusted with leading the December 1975 raid on the OPEC headquarters in Vienna. Financed by Saddam Hussein, the mission aims to fly the hostages to Baghdad and execute the oil ministers of Iran and Saudi Arabia. Carlos’ decision to spare his captives and accept an enormous ransom sees him evicted from the PFLP. He proceeds to make contact with German revolutionary activists including Johannes Weinrich (Alexander Scheer) and Magdalena Kopp (Nora von Waldstatten) and sets himself up as a freelance terrorist, lucratively backed by governments in the Middle East and the Soviet Bloc.
Effortlessly switching between various languages, Ramirez delivers an impressively charismatic central performance, embodying the character’s many contradictions. He pays lip-service to the notion of fighting for the proletarian revolution, and defines himself as a ‘soldier, not a martyr’, yet he seems more interested in pursuing a jetset, hedonistic lifestyle. His sexual appetite powers his actions: he tells one of his many female conquests that, ‘Weapons are an extension of my body’, while getting her to caress a grenade. Repeatedly, Assayas depicts his protagonist bungling his terror operations, undermining the myth of ruthless expertise. One of Carlos’ great assets though is that he understands the power of spectacle: for the OPEC siege the then 26-year-old sports dark glasses, a Che Guevara beret and a leather jacket, projecting an image of revolutionary chic worldwide.
Dynamically shot in Cinemascope, and constantly switching between international locations, Carlos is a film which, in focussing on one reckless individual, illuminates a whole era and offers a vivid perspective on global terrorism.
GFT, Glasgow; Filmhouse, Edinburgh, from Fri 22 Oct.