One of the most widely discussed screenings at Cannes this year was Carlos,
which essentially recounts the life of the famed international terrorist Carlos
the Jackal during the period 1973-1994. It has a running time of more than five
hours, thus placing it somewhere between a film and a mini-series. It was screened as a film at Cannes,
but its length distates that it will be shown as a multi-part TV broadcast in most if not all
Is it good?
Yes, I would say that it is. Let me make the case directly and succinctly.
Despite its length and the fact that the dialogue is in at least seven different
languages without sub-titles (English, French, Spanish, German, Russian,
Hungarian, Arabic), I watched every minute of it without resorting to the
fast-forward button at any time. That, ipso facto, is pretty high praise.
The pace does drag at times during Carlos's periods of inactivity, but in the course of the film several terrorist
missions are presented, and they are all exciting thanks to complete directorial
control of the dramatic tension and the comprehensibility of the narrative.
Director and co-author Olivier Assayas maintained an assured hand over the
complex story, and because of that the film is able to present a vast array of
characters and foreign dialogue without confusing the audience. It also features
some magnificent cinematography in a vast array of exotic locations. Whether the
story takes place in Morocco, Vienna, Paris, Khartoum, Budapest, or any of
several other locales, the filming seems genuinely to have taken place within
those locations. I haven't been to every one of those places, but I've been to
many of them, and recognized several familiar sights in each. Credit also needs
to go to Edgar Ramirez, the Venezuelan actor who played Carlos at several
radically different stages of physical conditioning, and performed in at least
five languages, four of which he actually speaks.
Is it accurate?
Again, affirmative. After watching the film I read
the entire Carlos entry at Court TV, and found that the film was as faithful
as it could possibly be, given the need to compress twenty years into five
hours. I noticed only minor and unimportant differences between the Court TV
summary and the film's version of the story. You must, of course, realize that
it is not possible to present all the details of Carlos' life accurately. While
many of the events portrayed in this film took place in public with witnesses,
other portions of the film are based on assumptions, prejudiced accounts,
second-hand accounts, and Carlos' own dubious claims. From what I could
determine, however, the treatment was completely even-handed and fair. Whenever
one of the accounts of Carlos' exploits is in doubt, the film tends to avoid
pictorializing the incidents themselves, choosing rather to show Carlos
describing the action to someone else.
How does Carlos come off?
He's complicated - not likeable by any means, but interesting. He is a highly
intelligent man who probably started as a true believer in the Marxist
revolution and the cause of Palestine. He had some idealistic goals, a
charismatic gift for leadership, a gift for languages, and a cold enough heart
to survive as a wanted assassin. In time, however, he was made irrelevant or
even embarrassing to the causes he fought for because fame simultaneously stoked
his ego and made him too notorious to travel freely. He also had some
personality traits which led to ineffectiveness in his later years of freedom.
Carlos loved sex, booze, and luxury, thus alienating many of his comrades, from
the European socialist idealists who lived in austerity and
obscurity, to the devout followers of Islam who considered him a reprobate.
The death knell for Carlos was sounded when the Berlin
wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed. Carlos could then no longer rely on
the Hungarian government or the East German Stasi to provide him with save
havens. He was thus forced to live entirely in the Arab world, but the West
continued to exert various forms of pressure on the Middle Eastern nations to
abandon their harboring of terrorists, so Carlos kept getting expelled from
country after country until his last and only haven was in the corrupt and
unreliable Sudan. Eventually he was betrayed by his own bodyguards, who made him
available to French intelligence. His capture occurred in the summer of 1994.
Carlos was soon convicted in France for multiple murders, and was sentenced to
I am not by any means a fan of this director. I have
written very harshly about some of his earlier films, but those comments have
absolutely no bearing on what he has done here, which is simply to assemble an
excellent project. Before you commit to this film, you must be aware of its
length and complexity and the fact that it is performed in many languages.
Assuming you have no problem with any of that, I think you'll be impressed and
educated. I was.
Not pictured in the film:
Carlos the Jackal (actually a Venezuelan named Ilich
Ramirez Sanchez) is still in captivity in Paris, and is still relatively young
(60) as I write this. He still manages to make the headlines now and then
because France is a civilized nation which allows even convicted murderers a
relatively liberal assortment of civil rights. In 2001 the newspapers noted that
Carlos had married his female lawyer. In 2003 Carlos even managed to publish a
book based on his conversations with a visiting journalist. That work
("Revolutionary Islam") shows that Carlos hasn't mellowed, as he staunchly
defends radical Islam, and makes several inflammatory remarks in praise of
Saddam Hussein, bin Laden, and other unsavory international figures and causes.
He has corresponded with Hugo Chavez, who once called Carlos his friend, and has
praised his fellow jackal in various public fora. In 2009 Carlos again made the
he wrote a letter to Barack Obama. Most recently,
Carlos has been filing legal actions against the makers of this very film.