The Entitled Terrorist (Or What Made Carlos the Jackal Tick)
The man, the myth, the motherfucker: Olivier Assayass Carlos is about a terrorist who, despite not being terribly good at his job, wins international notoriety and beds hot radical chicks. In the movies three parts (totaling five and a half hours), the imperious, Pierre Cardinclad bomber joins forces in his early 20s with Palestinians, turns the mind-boggling 1975 OPEC kidnappings into a cash grab, and finally fades into African exilestill spouting ideology that tends to support doing just what he wants.
Who is this guy? The prevailing portrait of Carlos the Jackal is of a brash, stylish killer who thumbed his nose at governments and strutted for the media. At the same time, what really drove the nation-hopping revolutionary remains a bit of a mystery. Assayass film chronicles his deadly missions, terror-networking, and chest-thumping with a behavioral focus that bears out (without pat flashbacks) the backstory of a man born into radicalism but unwilling to embrace its screw-the-bourgeoisie asceticism.
Eventually, he became his own cause, says Édgar Ramírez, who portrays Carlos (born Ilich Ramírez Sánchez) with an unstinting self-assurance that grounds the films massive runtime. (Carlos opens in full next week at the IFC Center, and in a two-and-a-half-hour cut at Lincoln Plaza.) Ramírez, a one-time journalism major who spoke with Carloss family and associates to research his role, points out that the eventual terrorists worldview started with Marxist childhood tutors and a hard-line lawyer father who wanted his son to carry out the revolution he couldnt.
The Venezuelan-born actors family, in fact, comes from the same Colombia-bordering state as Carloss (There were a lot of Ramírezes in my class). He had in him this very Latin American machismo, Ramírez says of the terrorists headstrong refusal to give up the good life, which many of his gun-toting colleagues professed to scorn. Part of the [revolutions] ideology was to renounce and give up all your prior convictions and conceptions of the world. And he would not change that even in the name of the revolution.
Ramírezs feel for the character is part of what drove Assayas to cast him, in addition to a charisma that avoids caricature and aggrandizement while understanding that Carlos was a character, a construct.
Ilich is someone who has different lives and becomes a different person, depending on the situation, says Assayas (whose complete filmography is showing in a retrospective at BAM entitled Post-Punk Auteur, October 9 through 28). When he does the OPEC operation, he dresses up as Che Guevaraits not his look, he looks ridiculous, hes more of a sharp dresser. He creates the look of the revolutionary of that time.
The terrorism of the era, as depicted in the film, is distinct from todays homicidal martyrdom. The struggle at that time was defined by the Cold War, which was both atheist and internationalist, so the militants saw themselves as soldiers of a cause, Assayas says, explaining Carloss opposition to suicide runs that would cut that service short.
Assayas scored this dense historical account of murder and terror with the melancholy shivers and dark stabs of post-punkan unlikely musical choice. But a good one: Dreams Never End, the first song on New Orders debut album after Joy Division bandmate Ian Curtiss suicide, proves daringly suited to Carloss early transitional rise. Assayas was drawn to the notion of time passing, of the energy of the music of [the 80s]. (Which very nearly led to an all-Feelies soundtrack, except: The Feelies are uncomfortable with your using their music in a film about terrorism.) And, in fact, Carloss my-way-or-the-highway prima donna attitude, appetite for fame, and decline into oblivion echo the now-cliché arc of a celebrity band and its temperamental frontman. You have the groupies, the buses, the planes, the alcoholyou have everything, says Ramírez. (Assayas admits as much: I know, I know, I played with the analogy.)
All of which brings the entire, massively obscene fiasco of Carloss murderous run back to the machismo of the man, who in real life issued complaints to Assayas from a French prison, demanding final cut on the film. Carlos doesnt get as far as that prison. The movies fluidly choreographed intrigues and prideful speeches collapse with a whimper as the Jackal is arrested after his most delicate operation yet, at a urologists office. Its stuff you cant invent, says Assayas.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.