TV Preview: Sundance Channel's 5 1/2-hour biopic 'Carlos'

The three-part mini-series chronicles the life of Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, better known as Carlos the Jackal, one of the most-wanted terrorists in the nation from the mid-1970s to the early-1990s. "Carlos" premieres Oct. 11 at 9 p.m. ET on the Sundance Channel.
By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 10, 2010

If anyone's reputation ever preceded him, it would be the international terrorist Carlos the Jackal, a Venezuelan-born ideologue named Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, who sits in a French prison, about to turn 61 next week.

Little is known about him but a lot is imagined. In "Carlos," filmmaker Olivier Assayas's mesmerizing but certainly-too-long biopic airing this week on Sundance Channel, actor Edgar Ramírez fully inhabits the legendary Carlos, a man whose name until now conjured up almost no images, save for some nerdy mugshots.

Here, Carlos the Jackal is raw magnetism. Early in the film, he strolls down a London street, tosses a small bomb through the door of an Israeli bank and returns to his pied-à-terre for a vaingloriously steamy bath. He is resplendent in his full-frontal, righteous sense of self-congratulatory terrorism. It's the most disgustingly sexy thing you've seen in a while.

Ramírez's performance is quite possibly the only way you'll make it through all 5 1/2 hours of "Carlos." (Javier Bardem, if you are reading this, watch your back.)

And that's right -- 5 1/2 hours is unfortunately not a typo. I recommend watching all but the last hour, and I certainly understand if you feel the need to leave sooner than that. "Carlos" is a Wikipedia entry of the damned; it is necessarily bereft of anything like redemption or meaning. Its conclusion is simply a list of prison terms, deaths and last known whereabouts.

You're also to be forgiven for having only a vague recollection of Carlos the Jackal's rap sheet of known and alleged crimes. He is believed to have had a role in various bombings and assassinations (attempted and successful) on behalf of the Palestinian liberation movement in the early 1970s, which most notoriously included the brazen kidnapping of OPEC representatives from a meeting in Vienna. In the end, Carlos's questionable stint as a freedom fighter degenerated into arms trafficking behind the Iron Curtain in the waning days of the Cold War.

Carlos was old-school -- a multilingual, multinational bad guy whose long crime spree predated modern jihad and techno warfare. This seems to be the sole point of "Carlos": It's about a man and an era that have both been packed conveniently away in popular memory; yet the film also faintly suggests in Carlos the Jackal a harbinger of the elusive and even more amoral future terrorists who would come along.

* * *

Split into three distinct parts beginning Monday night, "Carlos" revels luxuriantly in a world that in many ways no longer exists -- a pre-Internet, Gauloise-chain-smoking, deeply radicalized Europe and Middle East populated with insouciant Marxists of all stripes who are willing to help "the cause," which was so broadly defined back then as to verge on parody.

But the militant ineptitude that is the underlying theme of "Carlos" is rarely funny or even enthralling. Rather, "Carlos" is a fascinating attempt to methodically reconcile fact with underworld lore, fictionalizing the narrative gaps where neither is available.

The result is a beautiful film that requires a hardy and determined viewer. I assume that anyone who will recognize and follow each and every event and the historical players portrayed in "Carlos" must have worked in foreign diplomacy back when the rest of us were busy watching the Fonz.

This was back when bomb-wired Peugeots were detonated perfunctorily near Parisian cafes; when the front desk staff at the embassy lobby would helpfully direct a swarthy-looking group of men carrying duffel bags to the elevator that leads up to the OPEC meeting.

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