November 01, 2010

Carlos (2010)

Writers: Dan Franck (screenplay), Olivier Assayas (screenplay)

Review by Colin Dibben

Five and a half hours long, spanning three decades, featuring a script in seven languages and with more locations than a Bond/Bourne film, you can think of this relentlessly energetic biopic of hijacker, international terrorist and drunken lout Carlos the Jackal as a kind of epic anti-Bond film.  

Like Bond, Carlos is a bit of an international playboy – he’s completely unreconstructed and macho. But then, he was living in a time of radicalised youth politics when you could seduce a woman with talk of ‘revolution in the name of the oppressed’, by flashing a grenade and then dry-humping her with it.  

Unlike Bond, Carlos is actively engaged in undermining national security, indeed undermining all nation states. Like Bond, he’s not particularly politically engaged. As he declares after his annus mirabilis, 1975, “there are no more ideologies ... there are just super-powers using nation states using us to play chess”. He’s a man of action in a world of Cold War chess. He knows he’s a pawn, so he’ll charge as much as he can for his services.  

The film starts in 1973. Venezuelan Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, aka “Carlos”, starts off as a team player in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a rival to the PLO that took up the active terrorist mantle when the latter dismantled the Black September group. He travels from Beirut to London, Paris, The Hague ... planning for and arming his own cell’s actions as well as those of others – like the Japanese Red Army’s bloodbath hostage-taking in The Hague’s French Embassy.   

1975 is the turning point. The biggest action set piece of the film is the hostage-taking at the Vienna OPEC conference, which culminates with Carlos compromising the Cause for dollars: “We’re soldiers, not martyrs”, he rationalises.  

For the next 20 years, Carlos and his small group of renegade terrorists follow the dollar, bidding for work from East Germany’s Stasi, Saddam Hussein and Colonel Gadaffi (the film suggests that the latter paid Carlos 20 million dollars more than once to bump off Egypt’s President Sadat) as they hide out in Budapest, Syria and Sudan.  

The film effectively charts changes in Western European militant internationalism in the 1970s and 1980s – showing how terror cells that were deeply embedded in/ a part of urban youth movements in the 1970s became more dependent on each other as the decade wore on. So much so, that at the turn of the decade, groups like ETA were outsourcing actions to groups in other parts of Europe. The film suggests that this was the effect of massive amounts of money being poured into Western European terror cells by Iran, Iraq, Syria and Libya – through people like Carlos, who definitely took a nice finder’s fee.  

What’s great about the film is that it makes the intricacies of Carlos’ life and times exciting – and it suggests that a true history of the geopolitics of the 70s and 80s must be linked to the story of this charismatic but ultimately used and abused man.  

In this day and age, it is tempting to consider acts of terror as the products of indoctrination techniques visited on vulnerable young men, but this was not the case 30 years ago. If only because the ideas and processes behind these acts of violence were more familiar for a generation coming out of the 60s, Carlos and his ilk had an almost benign media presence. Hey, you could negotiate with these people!  

This sense of the realpolitiks of terrorism come across vividly and credibly in the film, aided by the fact that there is very little factionalist ‘ideology talk’ amongst the characters. They just get on and do their thing.  

The 70s are convincingly detailed in decor. Edgar Ramirez is suitably charismatic and fleshy as the main man - his performance really gives the film the kick start it needs. There are some great action pieces in the first half of the film, although the second half takes a decidedly saturnine turn. It’s in the second half that the supporting cast, especially Nora von Waldstätten as Magdalena, Christoph Bach as Angie and Alexander Scheer as Johannes come into their own, providing an extra level of human drama to the story. 

The film is prefaced with a text caveat saying that although the film is based on lengthy historical and journalistic research, it should be considered a fiction. Apparently Ilich Ramirez Sanchez himself threatened legal action over the film, claiming that it would “tarnish his reputation”! Reputation? Has all that time in jail made Carlos a prince of meta-irony? 

One of the films of the year – don’t be lame now, go see the full version.

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