Celluloid Classics: Oliver Assayas’ “Carlos”

Hollywood and company have produced a myriad of terrorist themed films in recent memory. Many of them revolve around Middle Eastern jihadist fighters scouring Western influence. You’ve seen them burn American flags and take hostages and tear down buildings. And even before that, movie theaters were populated with Latin American Noriega-esque drug runners and communist radicals. The prototype for the active terrorist evolved from Latin to Arab after the September eleventh attacks on the World Trade Center.

Olivier Assayas’ 2010 epic film/television series Carlos follow the somewhat exaggerated life and lifestyle of Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, who was known internationally by his nom de guerre Carlos the Jackal.


The film begins right after the events of the Black September Massacre, in a small dimly lit apartment belonging to a man named Mohammed Boudia. Leaving his girlfriend in their home, he exits his building and makes his way to the theater. On the way out, his car explodes in flames; a political assassination. The film is crowded with violent deaths and sexuality. With some sharp editing and an up-tempo soundtrack, we are introduced to a clean shaven Carlos, in Beirut, meeting with none other than Wadie Haddad, who is spearheading an operation to liberate Palestine. The film covers Carlos’ participation in left-wing activism, his undeniable charm and influence on the people around him, and commitment to his ideals. Carlos is a strange amalgamation. The film seamlessly blends an era of epic political upheaval: Munich 1972, the infamous hostage situation of the OPEC meeting in Vienna, and the murder of two DST officers which finally caught up with him.

Édgar Ramírez portrays Carlos as a “swaggering global gangster”, says Criterion. I say he plays it with all the reckless abandon and wanton of an artist inspired. A hypnotic mixture of sex appeal, political deviance (one might even say genius) and absolute danger. Ramírez has absorbed his character fully. In one scene, Carlos leaves his bath and stands in front of a full length mirror fully nude, taking pride in his penis. An obvious cue to sense his immense pride and “manliness”. The image on the cover of the dvd case covers the feeling perfectly: a boastful Carlos, clad in his symbolic black beret, stepping out of an airplane with a cigarette in one hand and a machine gun in the other, the paparazzi trying the make sense of who this character is.

The five and a half hour film is coupled with a wonderful soundtrack featuring New World’s “Dreams Never End”, forever scarring your image of the tune. What a wonderful experience! The same is done for The Feelies’ “Loveless Love”, which is used as a tool to heighten the audience’s awareness.

Between the actors, the music, subject matter, and its sheer length and scope, we have a grand film, covering the turbulent era between 1970 and 1994. The film was shot in more than five languages due to its constant movement from London to Khartoum, and everywhere in between. The original airing was on both the Sundance and IFC Channels. But those versions are cut and edited from the original director’s edit. I suggest picking up the film on dvd, especially the Criterion release.

If you find yourself enjoying this film, I also recommend these: CHE Parts I and II (2008), The Baader-Meinhof Complex, both parts of Mesrine (2008)

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