Carlos

Issue section: 
(352)

Director: Olivier Assayas; Release date: out now

Carlos tells the story of Ilich Ramirez Sánchez - commonly known as Carlos the Jackal. He was the world's most infamous terrorist in the 1970s and 1980s. A Venezuelan, and the son of a wealthy Marxist lawyer, Carlos started off working for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) but fell out with them when he bungled a high-profile operation. He then set up his own organisation.

After a promising start which contextualises Carlos's subsequent activities with the Mossad assassination of a PFLP activist, the film soon loses direction and its energy dissipates. The key weakness is one common to many biopics - a determination to be faithful to the details of a subject's life gets in the way of a good story. There's little drama to be had in the mere recitation of events.

But even in the biographical sphere it does not succeed in giving a sense of what motivates Carlos. The closest we get is an early scene where he argues with a friend, claiming that "demos never change anything, words get us nowhere, it's time for action". He points to the Vietcong as an example of how the imperialist powers can be brought to their knees. But as the film progresses we see less and less of Carlos's politics. The focus changes to the mechanics of his operations, the infighting of his group and his own self-regard. It becomes unclear what is driving him. In that early scene his friend replies, "Fighting capitalism with guerrilla warfare is doomed to failure - look how Che ended up in Bolivia. You are just another selfish, two-bit petty bourgeois looking for glory." It's a throw-away line, but it is prescient.

While not hiding his more repellent aspects, the film portrays him as a charismatic and seductive character, a man who enjoys living up to his own myth. The filmmakers themselves feed off the myth. This is expressed most crudely in the marketing - the poster has Carlos with beret and gun. Tagline: The man who hijacked the world.

Although it has its moments, my overwhelming feeling was of bemusement - why bother to make the film at all? Why invest so much time and effort in a project that reveals very little about Carlos, about terrorism, or about the world we live in?

Perhaps the answer lies in France, where Carlos is imprisoned and where he looms larger in the public imagination. It was their secret service that hunted him down and secured his life imprisonment (for the murder of two of their agents and an informant). The film was originally made as a mini-series for French TV, running to five and a half hours. This version is trimmed - though not enough - to just under half that length. On the TV schedules it'd be worth a look, but as cinema it doesn't merit the price of entry.