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'Carlos' brings real terror to the screen

From left: Badih Abou Chakra, Alejandro Arroyo, and Édgar Ramirez. From left: Badih Abou Chakra, Alejandro Arroyo, and Édgar Ramirez. (Jean-Claude Moireau)
By Christopher Wallenberg
Globe Correspondent / October 24, 2010

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NEW YORK — A certain cave-dwelling madman who helped plan and finance the tragic events of 9/11 may be the most famous, reviled, and hunted terrorist on the planet today. But 35 years ago that dubious distinction belonged to one Ilich Ramírez Sánchez — best known by the nom de guerre Carlos the Jackal — who orchestrated a wave of bloody and brazen terrorist attacks across Europe during the 1970s and ’80s.

While the Venezuela-born Carlos evaded the law for almost two decades, depictions of him are strewn across the pop culture landscape. He’s a villain in Robert Ludlum’s “Bourne’’ trilogy of novels (the character did not appear in the film adaptations) and he’s hunted in the 1997 film “The Assignment,’’ in which a decoy is invented to aide in his capture. Not much can be said of the ’97 Bruce Willis clunker “The Jackal.’’ But there was plenty to chew on in Barbet Schroeder’s riveting 2007 documentary, “Terror’s Advocate,’’ which devotes an entire chapter to Carlos.

Now comes perhaps the most sprawling, dynamic, and definitive portrait of the notorious terrorist ever committed to celluloid: French director Olivier Assayas’s three-part, 5 1/2-hour epic “Carlos,’’ which was one of the most applauded entries at this year’s Cannes Film Festival despite being shut out of competition categories. “Carlos’’ premiered in the United States on the Sundance Channel this month, before opening in select theaters in both a full-length and a shortened, 2 1/2-hour version. The abbreviated edition will be seen theatrically in Boston at the Museum of Fine Arts this Friday and Saturday, and the complete work will show at the Coolidge Corner Theatre Oct. 31-Nov. 4.

When Assayas was first approached by a French television producer to do a film about the capture of Carlos in Sudan by French authorities, he was intrigued. But the more he delved into the fascinating historical research compiled by journalist Stephen Smith, the more he realized what a compelling and dynamic movie Carlos’s larger story might make.

The son of a Marxist lawyer, Carlos started off as a revolutionary-minded, pro-Palestinian militant spouting anti-imperialist rhetoric. Ultimately, he became a ruthless terror plot mastermind and then a cynical mercenary-for-hire who fell victim to rapidly changing geopolitics after the toppling of the Berlin Wall. Popular history remembers him as a jet-setting, grenade-tossing extremist, an international playboy, and a narcissistic media sensation enamored of his own image. (It should be noted that the best-selling novel and film “The Day of the Jackal’’ were not based on Carlos, though his nickname does owe its origins to the book, which was erroneously reported to have been among his belongings.)

With “Carlos,’’ Assayas and co-screenwriter Dan Franck decided to focus on the major episodes in this man’s reign of terror, including the brutal murder of two French domestic intelligence agents and their informant in a room full of guitar-strumming lefties in the Latin Quarter of Paris, and the famous hijacking of an OPEC summit in Vienna, where the oil ministers were taken hostage and flown to Algiers.

“My approach to writing the screenplay was to be extremely factual,’’ says Assayas, ensconced in a bright, spacious lounge at Alice Tully Hall during the New York Film Festival, where “Carlos’’ was introduced to rapturous applause. “I think that from the start, I was convinced that I should not approach the character with any kind of preconceived ideas or agenda.’’

Assayas’s M.O. was to look for those quietly revealing moments, a hallmark of his previous films, including “Summer Hours’’ and “Late August, Early September,’’ which were also rich in big ideas and poetic details. But whereas those films are wistful and elegiac, “Carlos’’ is propulsive and dynamic.

By focusing on careful observation of the globe-trotting action and procedural details, Assayas felt that “an image and an understanding’’ of Carlos would emerge. “If I stuck to only the facts,’’ he says, “I thought that I would catch something and I would understand something about who Carlos really is.’’

Assayas readily acknowledges that aspects of the film, especially many of the conversations between characters, are fictionalized, even if they’re largely based on factual events. And indeed, the real-life Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, imprisoned in France after being captured in the Sudan in 1994, tried to sue the producers from behind bars, demanding a say in the film’s final cut.

The handsome actor Édgar Ramirez, another native of Venezuela, brings Carlos to vivid life in a potential star-making performance, and says that he was drawn to the paradoxes and enigmatic qualities of the character. He explains that the key to playing the larger-than-life figure was to move beyond the labels that came to define him: The Terrorist, The Womanizer, The Playboy, The Freedom Fighter, The Superficial Cipher.

“Olivier and I wanted to explore what might have been behind each label and how and why those labels shifted over time,’’ says Ramirez during a separate interview at the festival. “That appealed to me immediately because that’s all about contradiction and complexity. I think that’s the reason I became an actor — this fascination with human nature, with all its lights and darkness. And I think, somehow, acting as a craft has helped me to deal with and reconcile a world filled with so much contradiction and incongruity.’’

Still, Ramirez says that Carlos was one of the most challenging parts he has ever played because he struggled to find empathy for him. The turning point came when Ramirez had a chance to speak with a member of Carlos’s family, who helped him understand that Carlos lived in a world where the political alliances were constantly shifting.

“For example, if you’re working with the Red team against the Blue team. And then the Red and the Blue teams make a pact, where does that leave you? Your instinct is to survive. Wouldn’t you become your own ideology then?’’ observes Ramirez. “Here’s this mastermind, this boogeyman of international terrorism, and he suddenly becomes a little piece on a much larger chess board. The guy who backed governments into a corner was himself cornered. Once I understood that, I could see a crack of vulnerability and humanity in him.’’

The complexity of the character was breathtaking to Ramirez. “Just from the pure dramatic point of view, this was a character worthy of a movie. Here’s a guy who declares himself to be a hardcore Marxist-Leninist and an active revolutionary. He made the passage from revolutionary theorist to militant soldier. However, he’s also a guy who bought all his clothes at Harrods, drank the best wine, loved to sleep in the best sheets, and when he went to Paris shopped at Pierre Cardin. And to him, there was no conflict between carrying out the revolution and dressing in fancy clothes.’’

In the end, though, that vanity and rampant obsession with his own celebrity — not to mention the shifting geopolitical landscape and collapse of the Iron Curtain — became his undoing. Assayas points out that while Carlos is serving a life sentence in prison, many of the other famous terrorists of his era are free and writing their memoirs. Anis Nakash, he says, “has done worse things than Carlos, and he’s on TV every week in Lebanon discussing geopolitics.’’

“You can’t be both a terrorist and a celebrity — it just doesn’t work that way,’’ Assayas says. “Carlos is in jail because he played with the idea of being a kind of poster boy for world terrorism. So, in that sense, you live by the image, you perish by the image.’’

Ramirez, for his part, wonders if every political, artistic, or social movement reaches a point where individual ambitions prevail. Indeed, he sees the film and Carlos’s life story as “a metaphor for that struggle between idealism and individualism, between a desire and conviction to change the world on one side and a narcissistic obsession for a place in history on the other side.’’

Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@gmail.com.

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