Carlos: The Jackal (Movie version)

Ilich Ramírez Sánchez was born in Venezuela in 1949. He went on by the nickname of Carlos and in the name of “Revolution” and “Anti-imperialism” fought alone the cause of Muslims and left arm militants. Carlos Assayas´s “Carlos” is a fictional approach to the real character and is not exempt of poetic licenses to portray a real human being.

Carlos: The Jackal” was shot as a mini-series for French TV, but it was also edited to release theatrical versions to Cinemas.  As this review focuses on the 165 minute theatrical version, I can imagine that tough decisions were made at the editing room to try to condense the story of Carlos to an acceptable running length. The outcome is a film that focuses on the the character and not on the action, without compromising the overall plot, although one notices where the batches are and where the cuts were made. To this respect, dramaturgically, the decision was made to concentrate on the main events that made Carlos famous and for which he is convicted, namely the assassination of DTS French officers and an informant ant the raid to the OPEC meeting in Vienna. These two actions contextualize what Carlos, The Jackal is as a man, that is a contradictory, demagogical, egocentric person.

Just as the original mini-series trilogy, the movie is structured in three acts. The first act is a dynamic, filled with action capitulation of the events that young Carlos takes on to establish himself as the “Rock Star” of the Islamic and left cause. In this first act Assayas chooses to show us a naked Carlos who contemplates his most valuable weapon, the one that makes him a man and then confesses that guns are only extensions of his own physiognomy. He stares his naked body in front of a mirror establishing his egocentric persona and shows us the hedonism in which he indulges the rest of his life, which also contradicts his own revolutionary principles.

The second act focuses on the events of the OPEC raid and his attempts to survive the mission which results in the later expulsion from the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestina). This only pushes him to form his own group where he can be his own messiah and throw orders as he wishes. In this act Assayas slows down the hectic action we saw on act one and shows us the real persona behind the terrorist, the one who only cares about his own triumphs and hides behind a so called higher cause.

And then the third act throws down the rhythm completely to portray the debacle and decadence of the Star. The full blown arrogance and selfish man that puts his ego above the well being of the people around him, his own wife and daughter, and even himself. Assayas picks accurately the events, showing us how Carlos chooses to have a liposuction (looks first) over an operation to extract a tumor from his testicle which is also a cruel metaphor of his rotting manly weapon.

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In the film version, Assayas assumes that the audience knows the character beforehand and doesn´t take much time in explaining the course of events, this is a smart choice to keep things moving, since what he cares about is not to recreate the actions of a terrorist, but to study the man behind those actions. The mixed use of archive footage reminds us of the veracity of events and refreshes our mind in the chronology of the story. However, as it is true that we may know Carlos from what he has done, we certainly don´t know his original motivations and I would have loved to see the Ilich, before Carlos, the one who was raised by a communist family in Venezuela and went to school in London and Moscow. These would have given us a chance to get deeper into the psyche of the character and portray the less known context in which the rest of the story develops.

The film resonates deeply with the world we have now, the one post 9/11 and the one with Hugo Chávez trying to develop his own International Revolution from his Venezuelan “Bunker”. The film relates strongly to the 2011 world with events that happened in 1975, being immersed in a so called “war on terror” which is now more religious and economical than political. But also the characters are so up to date that is impossible not to make comparisons. Ilich Ramírez´s “Carlos” is a self denoted revolutionary supposedly fighting for a cause, but he cares more about his own power struggles, about his own achievements and works towards making a name for himself. All this while he enjoys the best of what the west world has to offer, a bottle of red label Whisky is in his hand at every chance he gets and is constantly seen throughout the film. This reminds me a lot of “Bolivarian Revolutionaries”, from which his leader has worked his ass off (and at the cost of his people) to establish himself as the “Rock Star” of a so called Socialism of the 21st Centruy. The ties are so close that Chávez has even outed himself to defend the innocence of Ilich Ramírez, praising him as a ´“revolutionary fighter” and not a terrorist´. We could dig deeper in the relations of revolutionary terrorists tied with middle eastern dictators in the seventies and what is happening today, but we would need a bigger tribune for that.

Going back to the movie itself, Edgar Ramírez has grasped his character with such subtle accuracy, that he makes the fact that he speaks more than four languages in the film, including Arabic, so effortless and convincingly that we forget he´s actually speaking a different language depending on his interlocutor. The fact that he is a Venezuelan actor provides him with the chance to implement localisms in his expressions that I doubt any viewer outside Venezuela would understand but provides veracity to his portrayal, although sometimes I had the feeling that his local Venezuelan “dialect” doesn´t relate to how Carlos actually speaks, but how Edgar Ramírez does in his ordinary life. The supporting cast is not equally balanced in terms of interpretation, except for the German thesps who depict a frightening passion for the German Revolutionary Cells.

The beautiful Cinemascope cinematography of French DPs Denis Lenoir and Yorick Le Saux, charges the film with a vintage, but at the same time modern look, taking advantage of the unrivaled latitude of celluloid, which coupled with the detailed production design transport us direct to the 70´s and 80´s.

Assayas has assembled an epic story out of a common character which I think suffers from its different versions. I feel I am missing a lot by not seeing the whole 330 minute version (which I plan in doing and review in due time), but nonetheless manages to supply a thrilling summarized version for the not so patient audiences.

Carlos: The Jackal – France, Germany, 2010 – Drama, Thriller – Director: Olivier Assayas –  Starring: Edgar Ramirez, Alexander Scheer,Nora von Waldstatten, Ahmad Kaabour, Christoph Bach, Rodney El Haddad, Julia Hummer, Rami Farah,Zeid Hamdan, Talal El Jourdi, Fadi Abi Samra, Aljoscha Stadelmann – 165 min. (Movie version)


About xagudo

Xavier Agudo is a Berlin-based Venezuelan filmmaker.