The name Ilich Ramírez Sánchez may not inspire instant recognition amongst the majority of the populace, however his nom de guerre certainly will. Under the guise of Carlos the Jackal, Venezuelan militant Sánchez was the mastermind behind a series of bombings, hijackings and other attacks in the name of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and other organisations, eluding the authorities until 1994. That his nickname is thought to originate from a copy of Frederick Forsyth’s novel “The Day of the Jackal” is apt, as popular culture has leapt upon him as a subject in everything from Robert Ludlum’s Bourne Trilogy (as seen in the TV adaptations, but not the films) to comedic television series Whoops Apocalypse (with Seinfeld‘s Michael Richards satirising his public persona). First portrayed on screen by Andrés García in 1979 Mexican film Carlos el Terrorista, Sánchez’s story inspired 1997 effort The Assignment (although not The Jackal from the same year, as commonly believed), and now Olivier Assayas’ mini-series turned feature film Carlos.
Telling the story of the man named for Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and immortalised as Carlos, the film that bears his assumed moniker explores events over a twenty-five year period ranging from his initiation into the world of terror to his eventual, inevitable capture. As we meet him as a youth (played by fellow Venezuelan and The Bourne Ultimatum actor Édgar Ramírez), the audience is acutely aware that his journey will be one filled with power and peril, with his infamy increasing as he traverses the globe. From Beirut to Baghdad, London to Libya, Aden to Algiers, and Sudan to Syria, his dastardly and devious deeds swept across Europe and the Middle East, with the likes of Paris, Vienna and Brussels in between. Earning praise from colleagues and scorn from superiors, and inspiring fascination from the press and determination from the might of law enforcement on his trail, Carlos aspired to the life of a revolutionary, but it was his acts as a terrorist that were more commonly seen.
With international intrigue and extremist excitement part and parcel of Carlos’ life, his tale is seemingly ready-made for the screen. Although consummate filmmaker Olivier Assayas is overt about the reality that much of story presented involves creative estimations of events simply unable to be explored with certainty (indeed, a pre-feature message refers to this), the film provides a measured balance of fact and fiction that is nothing less than riveting. Within these confines, that the feature manages to provoke such an air of suspense in a biopic is a masterful achievement, and one that should not be underestimated. From Carlos’ first failed assassination attempt of businessman and vice president of the British Zionist Federation, Joseph Sieff to the OPEC raid, hostage taking and associated efforts to flee to friendly climes, the director invests each incident with the requisite tension, whilst delving beneath the surface to contemplate the motives of the man known as Carlos. Later occurrences, particularly those concerning his split from various factions, his failed romances, and continual quest to stay alive, are dealt with in the same powerful manner. Whilst it may be impossible to ever know the subject, or to accurately depict his comings and goings within the space of a five-and-a-half hour, or two-and-a-half hour offering, Carlos comes as close as we’re likely to see in a feature effort.
Given that the talent of Assayas as a writer and director is an already known quantity (courtesy of an outstanding back catalogue that includes Summer Hours, Clean, Demonlover and Irma Vep), the success of Carlos in conveying the complexity of the titular character outside of the standard framework falls to the leading man. Needing a candidate that could express both the ruthless and charismatic sides of Carlos’ nature, the choice of Édgar Ramírez may not have been an obvious one, however it is partly for that reason that the Domino and Vantage Point actor eclipses expectations. Both confident and contemplative, as well as defiant and disciplined, Ramírez turns in an assured performance amidst several physical transformations, whilst embodying the protagonist with a steely sense of determination. In life and death situations, and in the big and small moments, his demeanour as Carlos rarely falters, nor does his portrayal of the character’s strong personal code (even if it is skewed to a different sense of morality than the majority of the populace). A deserving recipient of awards acclaim (including nominations from the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild awards), Ramírez is the undisputed centre of the feature, to the point that the remainder of the cast – whilst proficient – are the very definition of supporting players. In telling a singular – albeit multifaceted – story of a singular man, his efforts help unravel layer upon layer of this historical curiousity, with the original, extended version certain to impress even further.
There is a reason that, even in its shortened form, Carlos has garnered unwavering praise from cinephiles from all corners of the globe. A brave and bloody portrait of political violence and the man held up as its emblem, as well as a stunning example of the work of its star and director, the film is an epic effort in every sense of the word.
Carlos is screening as part of the Alliance Française French Film Festival 2011.