GLUTTON FOR PUNISHMENT
I spent New Year’s Day sitting in the Cinema Village movie theater, watching the 5 and 1/2 hour "road show" version of Olivier Assayas’ Carlos, a detailed biopic of Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, aka Carlos the Jackal. There were a half dozen other masochists in the audience, including two dressed in full camouflage.
The guy playing Carlos, Edgar Ramirez, is almost too charismatic for the role and, as is obligatory for these terrorist films, there is plenty of male full frontal nudity and luscious German female revolutionaries (not to mention Romanian spy prostitutes) giving up their nubile bodies to the patriarchy, scruffy Marxist division. These pleasures nearly derail Carlos, which is otherwise concerned with the iron grip of power and its manipulation of one man, be he terrorist or stock clerk in a bookstore, for its grim, playful purposes.
Things start to go wrong for Carlos, after he undertakes a few random political killings, when he kidnaps all of the OPEC oil ministers at a Geneva meeting in December 1975. Boarding a plane provided by the Algerian government, with Saudi oil minister Sheik Yameni at gunpoint, Carlos tries to land in Tripoli to meet Colonel Ghadaffi, only to be refused landing rights because he happened to kill the Libyan oil minister back in Geneva. These little glitches in the logic of protocol continue to elude Carlos.
Back in Algiers, Carlos greets Algerian President Boumedienne on the tarmac, only to be surprised when Boumedienne embraces the now-liberated Saudi oil minister as an old friend. Over the arc of the film, Carlos never quite figures out that the only real power his notoriety holds is in the hands of the governments who use his reputation to scare the hell out of the public and each other.
The effects are comical, from the head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Wadie Haddad, constantly berating the macho Carlos for his lack of discipline and publicity hunger to Carlos unsuccessfully trying to convince his German sidekick that President George H.W. Bush has personally put a price on his head, long after the world has forgotten who Carlos is. Carlos is bounced around from one fourth-world backwater to another, betrayed by the Syrians, who suddenly wish to befriend the West after the collapse of communism, rejected by the Palestinians after Haddad’s death and then, in a stirring denouement, manipulated by an elegant Sudanese imam into capture by the French, while Carlos is undergoing liposuction and an operation on his testicular veins to buttress his disappearing machismo.
Actor Ramirez manages to turn a bloodthirsty, sexist, fundamentally stupid man who was the symbol of world terrorism for a generation into a powerless figure of sympathy. Assayas’ message in Carlos trumps all: that powerful men of whatever political stripe from government to government are in the business of helping each other. Any revolutionary, even "The Jackal," is a pockmarked puppet on a frayed, yellowing string.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).