Thursday, October 7, 2010

From Jackal To Weasel: The Legend of Carlos

Sure, Carlos chronicles the rise and fall of an extremist, but the brilliant Olivier Assayas drama also is very much about the wages of personal decline. Shot as a three-part French television miniseries, the picture profiles a Venezuelan named Ilich Ramirez Sanchez who reinvented himself as the dreaded Carlos. (It was a British newspaper that later added “the Jackal” to his nom de guerre.) Periodic archival footage serves as a reminder that this account is more or less how it all went down; additional truth emerges from magnificent writing, photography, editing and acting.

By the time he appears on screen at age 23, in the early 1970s, the arrogant idealist (portrayed by Edgar Ramirez) has honed the Marxist views inherited from his parents and furthered by studies in world domination at a Moscow university. There’s also been some training in Jordan as a fighter for the anti-Zionist cause. While many of his American contemporaries are demonstrating against the Vietnam War, Carlos chooses a path far more insidious than that of the Weather Underground. “I don’t believe in protests,” he says at one point. “Words get us nowhere … Behind every bullet we fire, there will be an idea.”

Maybe so, but there is also an egocentric quest for glory in a crowded field of amoral operatives. His first professional gig involves wreaking havoc on behalf of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine under the guidance of Wadie Haddad, played by Ahmad Kaabour. Their first target: the Jewish chief executive of Marks & Spencer, a posh London department store. Carlos botches the job, as well as a rocket-propelled grenade attack on El Al jets at Orly. Both events are harbingers for what will be many flops in his career as a lethal revolutionary collaborating with militants from East Germany and Japan. Unfortunately, this Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight period soon gives way to full-fledged carnage.

The film – now being released in two versions, 330 minutes and 150 minutes – premiered out of competition at Cannes before wowing audiences at the subsequent Telluride and New York festivals. It will air October 11 on the Sundance Channel and unspool at Toronto’s Bell Lightbox on October 21. The subject matter and length are more likely to attract devotees than everyday people – those who Carlos theoretically wants to liberate from their chains in Assayas’ factual work of fiction. Ultimately, it’s a case of proletariat be damned, but for more than two decades he crisscrossed the planet to hatch plots and carry them out with deadly force. His sponsors seem to be every madman from Saddam Hussein to KGB spymaster Yuri Andropov. His approach to mayhem predates the suicide missions of today’s jihadists. “I am a soldier,” Carlos contends, when others want to sacrifice themselves rather than retreat. “Not a martyr.”

His initial taste of blood comes in Paris, where he spontaneously kills an informer and two French counterintelligence agents about to corner him at a party. The prolonged scene is as suspenseful as moviegoing gets, and Assayas allows the circumstances to unfold at their own nervous pace rather than ginning up the action for cinematic thrills. Another gripping extended sequence traces a 1975 OPEC meeting in Vienna and its aftermath. Carlos is supposed to assassinate the Saudi and Iranian oil ministers at the behest of the Iraqi leader, never seen on camera (but already a devious force in world affairs almost 30 years before the 2003 American invasion that will lead to his capture and execution). When Austrian police thwart their commando raid, the hostage-takers are flown to Algeria, which doesn’t want them. Ditto for Libya when they try to land in Tripoli. Onboard the DC-9, Carlos and his comrades begin to turn on each other as they wait for a resolution. This will not be the last of his frustrations and humiliations. He experiences a showdown with Haddad, who shouts:”I decide who lives and who dies. Not you!”

As a vain and dashing hunk in a black beret, he seduces numerous women onto his bed and into his cause. The most significant of these ladies, Magdalena Kopp (Nora von Waldstatter), is a sultry German lured by the radical chic of it all. Carlos encourages her to conflate his appealing anatomy with that of the weapons he brandishes. She eventually becomes his wife, though the guy’s compulsive infidelities never falter. But at heart – if he even has one – he is a misogynist. His disdain for the opposite sex is evident in his calling Nada (Julie Hummer), a volatile female in their cadre, “a crazy bitch.” OK, she sure is that, but nobody’s perfect – least of all the power-hungry Latin American protagonist. He’s Tony Soprano with a Spanish accent. The HBO mafia boss rarely left New Jersey, of course. The peripatetic Carlos constantly travels back and forth from Europe, the Middle East, the Soviet bloc and Africa, somehow staying under the radar of officialdom as his reputation precedes him.

The closest he comes to a tender adult bond probably is with Hans-Joachim Klein (Christolph Bach), for some reason nicknamed Angie. Yet, this character displays the only semblance of a conscience among the villains, preferring nonviolent activism and denouncing the anti-Semitism of others in their movement. Inexplicably, Carlos protects him instead of ordering a hit. While demanding absolute fealty from his followers, he’s incapable of being a good boy in the established hierarchy. “You are famous now, a big star,” Haddad tells him. “But celebrities are never keen on obeying orders.”

Ah, fame. So fleeting. Carlos starts out as a sought-after communist enforcer inspired by the courage of Che Guevara but, as his influence dwindles in the wake of the eroding Cold War, he succumbs to mercenary pursuits, like smuggling arms for the highest bidder. He pledges his allegiance to Islam, despite being an atheist who has always thought of religion as the opium of the masses. By this time, his sociopathic opportunism has replaced any notion of a pure anti-imperialist struggle. Betrayals are inevitable, none worse than by his own body. As years go by and his importance lessens, Carlos develops a middle-age spread. He seeks liposuction. And how’s this for cosmic justice: His penis hurts. It’s not the clap, just a horribly painful blockage of semen.

Ramirez inhabits the role with amazing confidence, artfully conveying the trajectory from charisma to inconsequence. The script, by Assayas and Dan Franck, sticks close to the fascinating details: Carlos is almost a terrorist procedural, old-fashioned yet totally of the moment. In terms of comparative genres, this is a slice of documentary-like realism (Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, an intense thriller (Costa-Gavras’ Z), a comprehensive historical record (Steven Soderbergh’s Che) and an examination of the inevitable futility in any geopolitical maelstrom (Steven Spielberg’s Munich). As disturbing as such depictions of large-scale human folly may be, we can’t look away. We don’t dare look away.

Check out Shlomo Schwatrzberg’s October 6 interview with Olivier Assayas here.

– Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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