Oct 3, 2010

NYFF: Carlos

Carlos, directed by Olivier Assayas, is 5 1/2 hours of a gripping, stylish, smart and sardonic look at the life of Ilich Ramirez, aka Carlos the Jackal, the notorious terrorist from the 1970s. It was made for television, although it doesn't feel like a TV series. It is swiftly paced, energetic, gorgeously shot and thoroughly enthralling.
Carlos is played with blunt effectiveness by Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez, who speaks convincingly in English, French, German and Arabic, plus his native Spanish. He is a cold blooded murderer, bent by singleminded revolutionary fervor to end imperialism and help the Palestinian cause. He is also educated and well spoken and quite enjoys his bourgeois luxuries once in a while. At the beginning I felt queasy in case this ended up being a celebration of a rock star terrorist celebrity, but Assayas is very clear-eyed about his antihero. He portrays Carlos as a violent idealist whose despicable means to an end bear little in common with the empathy he supposedly feels for his own cause.
The film has plenty of wit and sardonic humor so, in contrast, with the boring and solemn hagiography that was Steven Soderberg's Che (an equally long production, but which felt much longer), this is no canonization of a guy, who at the very least, was a sociopath. Carlos represents the embodiment of the "armed struggle" that purports to free the oppressed by killing the oppressors (mostly innocent people) without ever helping the oppressed one bit. To look at it from the vantage point of today just proves how fruitless it all was. Israel is still around, the Palestinians are still in hell and the Arab world still can't get its shit together. Plus, communism is dead.
At the beginning, Assayas paints Carlos with the swagger of a rock star. He is attractive, cocky, irresistible to legions of women, and kinda cool. But soon it becomes clear that not only is he a ruthless murderer, but he ends up being the pawn in a larger game played by very sinister forces in the nasty underbelly of Cold War and anti-Zionist politics. He is not an innocent, but he seems to have no choice. If he has to carry out attacks, someone has to pay for them, no? And who is financing these terrorist spinoffs of the PLO, all these warring factions of Arab guerrilla infighting? Khadaffi, Saddam Hussein, Hafez Assad, some of them trying to gouge each others' eyes out, plus the KGB and the Stasi, for good measure.  Carlos acquiesces to doing the dirty work for ugly regimes without blinking, for he is a firm believer in the sowing of terror as a means and an end. As the seventies, with all their hijackings and bombings and cliques of young European and Japanese idiots scaring the shit of their complacent First World countries, give way to the more materialistic eighties, Carlos essentially becomes an arms runner, and he uses terrorism to liberate the less effective of his comrades that end up arrested. The cause, all of a sudden seems real petty.
Carlos refuses to ever acknowledge the degradation of his revolutionary zeal.  As for the great concern over the plight of the Palestinians, the movie makes clear that it is intertwined, from the very beginning, with a hateful and deliberate targeting of non-Israeli Jewish civilians as well. By the time one of the cells connected to Carlos hijacks an Air France plane and lands it in Uganda, at the bidding of the FPLP, the German terrorists on board separate the Jewish hostages from the gentiles, making the incident seem so much like Auschwitz on a Plane, that it makes the Israelis fly to Entebbe and liberate the hostages in an operation that probably did much to end the whole hostage-taking circus. After that, I think the terrorists decided that it was just easier to forgo their 15 minutes of broadcast fame, and just blow the hell out of airplanes, without all that jazz.
The movie shows how the Libyans pay Carlos to kill Anwar Sadat, only to be thwarted by the Muslim Brotherhood, who gets there first. That is enough foreshadowing to point us to the kind of terrorists we have to deal with today.  They make Carlos and his ilk look almost quaint.
Carlos claims he is only a soldier in the armed struggle against imperialism, but he likes to give orders rather than obey. Soon he is cut loose from the FPLP and he forms his own group, aided by a bunch of benighted Germans who spy for the Stasi, while the Stasi spies on them. As the hippie seventies give way to the materialistic eighties, Carlos adapts. He secures arms for the Basque ETA, he does assassination favors. And he keeps sinking lower and lower into a pariah, getting thrown out of pariah nations in a descending ladder of unsavoriness.
Carlos is an unsentimental chronicle of disenchantment with what now looks like quaint (but needlessly bloody) revolutionary ideals. It makes one ask the very important question, how do you get from feeling empathy for the downtrodden to killing pregnant women in their homes? And yet, one look at these cosmopolitan, globetrotting criminals and we realize that even their stylish pizazz is gone. Compared to the Islamonuts, the reds look like the paragon of reason, and of style.
To be honest, I was thrilled to watch a movie that is so close to my own convictions about the dangers of revolutionary dogma. I've always been allergic to far left propaganda, I don't buy the berets, the folk songs, the frustrated hatred against capitalist democracies, the supposed fight against tyranny and injustice by people who couldn't identify a totalitarian tyrant if he sent them to the Gulag, to a forced march, to a reeducation camp, and then bit them in the ass.
Yesterday, talking about Godard with my friend and fellow blogger Virginia, it occurred to me that Assayas is a stylistic heir to Godard. The movie is so well shot, so bracingly edited, so limber in its staging, that it reminded me of those exhilarating early Godard films.  Carlos may be Godardian in style, but it could not be a crisper rebuke to the dogmatic ideology of the far left, and so perhaps to the far left politics of Godard himself.
Assayas shoots this narcissist nihilism with such panache, energy and chic, that I wonder if he doesn't feel a certain nostalgia about the good old days where any idle 19 year old petit bourgeois wanted to join the Red Brigades. Nowadays you can't get young people off their facebook to walk the dog around the block, let alone to join a revolution. If he visually romanticizes Carlos and his exciting times (Edgar Ramirez is far more attractive than the original, and the movie is just stunning), the story makes sure his depravity, and that of his employers and comrades, comes across quite clearly. Carlos seems more like a major narcissist with good organizational skills and deadly sang froid, an adrenaline freak, than someone who is truly concerned about the fight for justice. He is in love with the idea of violent revolution, but has absolutely no qualms about killing innocents. He enjoys wielding the power of fear. For a Latin American, he was highly organized and highly effective. Too bad he used these unusual traits to kill people.

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