Ruthless Murderer as ‘Hero’


Can a ruthless international terrorist be a compelling cinematic hero? The answer is yes when it comes to the miniseries/film Carlos, based on the exploits of the man known as “Carlos the Jackal.”

To say he’s the film’s hero is by no means to condone his murderous actions or view him as heroic. But as played by Edgar Ramirez, he’s compelling and engaging, even for all his flaws and inherent contradictions and evil.

French director Olivier Assayas’ five-and-a-half hour biopic — shown on IFC in three parts and in theaters as a shorter two-part movie — takes a certain commitment, but it’s well worth it for anyone who follows international affairs and appreciates films that strive to offer a tangible feeling of reality. The mixture of political commitment, bravado, hubris, carnality, naiveté, ruthlessness and, yes, even humanity that Assayas and Ramirez bring to the man who was once the world’s most wanted terrorist makes for a most interesting character study.

Although a disclaimer at the film’s beginning stresses that it can’t claim Carlos — a Venezuelan-born Ilich Ramírez Sánchez — committed any further crimes than the murders he was convicted for in France, where he now serves a life sentence, a sense of historical accuracy pervades the film. It plays with a documentary realness that is reinforced by actual news footage spliced into the story and locales throughout Europe and the Arab world that give the film a “you are there” resonance. It takes some attention as it shifts through a number of languages (including English and subtitles for the others). But rarely has a political thriller felt so much like life and the times in which it all occurred because Assayas based it so well on an actual person and events.

As for Carlos, Ramirez describes him well as “a bit of a monster, a bit of a dreamer, a bit of an idealist, a bit of an assassin, a mixture of everything, full of contradictions, and that’s what made him interesting to me.” And interesting to me as well.

It’s a fascinating study in how idealism, ego and later fame can create a toxic human time bomb, as well as an incisive look at the Marxist-based revolutionary zeal of the postwar era into the 1990s. It also traces a compelling rise and fall arc of a man whose acts created a celebrity borne out of notoriety, and for all of Carlos’ seeming independence as a political warrior, he was still merely a pawn in a much bigger game. And then there’s the irony of how terrorism in support of the Palestinian cause has shifted from the Leftists like Carlos and his compatriots to the Muslim religious fundamentalism of al Qaeda.

Carlos certainly makes clear how youthful revolutionary zeal had its appeal to Leftists and even a sense of sexiness within the atmosphere of its era. It’s not exactly the terrorist as rock star, but the parallels do exist.

And finally, it’s a superb work of filmmaking. It’s television at its most cinematic, shot with style and directed and edited to keep dramatic tension pumping throughout most of its length. And Ramirez succeeds in making Carlos a full-blooded character that, even if you don’t sympathize with him and his actions, you are compelled to feel a mixture of emotions for and follow.

With terrorism today on the tips of tongues even in America, which largely escaped the international intrigues of this film prior to 9/11, Carlos is an insightful pre-history of what we face today. Though the actions of its protagonist are inhumane, it brings a human face to what is too often glossed over as simply evil when the nature and spirit of such terrorism is far more complex.

The film’s real-life subject argues that the film is a distortion (and even unsuccessfully sued to stop the project), yet I imagine Carlos is as close as one can get in a dramatic work to getting inside the life of a terrorist. And in order to mitigate if not maybe combat the threat of terrorism, understanding the people who commit such actions is key.

The movie version is still in limited theatrical release in the United States. The miniseries DVD has been released in Region 2, which includes Europe and Japan and is not playable on most DVD players in North America.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2010

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