Saturday, February 12, 2011


One of the biggest surprises of this year's Golden Globes was that "The Pacific" lost the award for Best Mini-Series to "Carlos". A less costly, but equally (or more) ambitious series, it follows the evolution of one of the world's most infamous figures, Carlos the Jackal (real name Ilich Ramirez Sanchez), from his humble beginnings as idealistic gun-for-hire to leader of one of the most dangerous international terrorist groups.

The movie exists in several versions. There is a complete 5 hour and a half version, and several trimmed ones. The three part series is the complete version. Much of it is based on fact, but a disclaimer at the beginning of each part states that some characters and relationships are fictitious. Nevertheless, the movie does an excellent job in constructing an incredibly vivid portrait of a notorious figure that for a lot of people was just a name echoed and referenced here and there. I would file this movie under "Educational", because it deals with important issues that movies nowadays rarely discuss. Terrorism is a problem today, as much as it was 40 years ago, when events such as the Munich massacre, or the raid on the OPEC headquarters, shocked the world.

Even though it's basically a biopic, the movie doesn't concern itself with details of his early life. The main focus is on Carlos' 20 years of terrorist activity. The first part details his work for the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – Life of Brian jokes, anyone ?) and establishes him as an idealistic and arrogant, but ferociously effective assassin (as well as quite a ladies man). His public notoriety was gained with the 1975 OPEC raid, depicted in the second part, which ended in failure and led to his expulsion from the PFLP. It is from that point on that Carlos went on to found his own worldwide terrorist organization. Bombings, assassinations and arms trafficking were their line of business, under the protection of communist governments in Europe. The third part of the movie deals with Carlos' downfall. Thrown out of Hungary in 1985 and losing the support of his socialist friends, he eventually settled in Syria. Manipulated and used by forces beyond his scope, he eventually ended up a pale reminder of the former revolutionary fighter, forced to deal with the changes in global politics, as the age of communism was coming to an end. Rebel without a cause, complacent and bored, he was eventually captured in 1994 and surrendered to the French authorities. He is currently still serving his life sentence for terrorism in Clairvaux Prison.

As you can see, it's not easy to sum up a story such as this. The movie is overwhelmingly complex. A lot of work went into gathering and cummulating information. This is probably the definitive source on the Jackal's history. And not just the Jackal's. It's fascinating to watch the movie trace the evolution of politics. In the end, Carlos was just a pawn and as the world changed, the same people who used to hire him to fight for them, turned their backs on him. No matter how passionate he was about the "revolution", or how many times he uttered the words "Palestinian cause", the truth is, he was no more than a thug in the eyes of manipulative higher powers in a game of world domination, a game where there is no right, or left, no capitalists, or socialists, only power-hungry players aiming to call the shots on a global scale. The movie succeeds as a historical document, cold, clinical, and brutally uncopromising.

One of the most pleasant surprises the movie has to offer is leading actor Edgar Ramirez. Unkown to the majority of audiences, Ramirez (sharing a last name with his on-screen persona) turns in a charismatic and powerfull performance, crafting a character that isn't likable or admirable, and not really as in control of the situation as we might expect, yet fascinating in a way that is hard to define. Ramirez manages to find a comfort zone in the character, that allows him to carry the movie effortlessly through all of its 5 hours.

A lot of good things can also be said about the production from a technical point of view. The cinematography actually reminded me of Janusz Kaminski's work on "Munich", which is a good thing, but thankfully, without copycatting, and the editing gives the proceedings a brisk pace while keeping it easy to comprehend . The budget was modest, but director Olivier Assayas makes the most of it. Never do you feel that something could have been done better with a bigger budget.

The Golden Globe award it won was a surprise, but, because "Band of Brothers" is still considered to be superior to "The Pacific", even though I would rather consider them as companion pieces, the voters probably opted for the movie that felt different. Indeed, it's an incredible achievement. I would recommend anyone to experience it in its entirety. So, free up five hours of your life and take a trip through history with "Carlos".

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