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

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 10, 2010; E05

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.

And the hijackings! The fake passports! Could it have ever been easier? "Carlos" summons an era when demands were met, terrorists were negotiated with, asylum was granted, buses were provided to the tarmac and planeloads of hostages were flown from Algiers or Tripoli or Beirut almost as often as they were asked, coffee, tea or me?

There's one scene where some of Carlos's associates attempt to hit an El-Al jetliner taxiing at Orly with a missile launcher. From the terminal parking lot! They miss, and try again! Then they try again four days later!

It really happened.

* * *

As "Carlos" unspooled, I found it possible to allow the film's layers of clandestine plot fade into a blur while instead savoring the set decor, locations and period details. Eventually you stop trying to remember who's who and what's where, and just enjoy the Naugahyde and teak of forgotten airport terminals and hotel lobbies.

With perhaps the exception of Steven Spielberg's "Munich," which dovetails nicely in morose spirit and disturbing milieu, very few movies about the 1970s (that weren't actually made in the 1970s) look and feel as perfect as "Carlos" does. It's like the best issue of Wallpaper magazine ever, tied together with a mid-'70s Euro-punk soundtrack.

Once a viewer is transfixed by "Carlos's" attention to these small details, the sprawling storyline eventually coheres into a possible metaphor: Is the film so long because a sinister world allowed (and aided) Carlos the Jackal, who exploited international disarray to suit his needs, for decades? Is "Carlos" itself a kind of prison sentence?

Perhaps, but it is also a fully rendered portrait of a cipher, a man the viewer will never like or even remotely understand. Yet Assayas dares you to take your eyes off Carlos, which would be impossible without Ramírez's stellar performance. There is a large and terrific supporting cast, too, including Alexander Scheer as Johannes, Carlos's loyal right hand, and Nora von Waldstätten as Magdalena Kopp, a militant who eventually married Carlos and had his child.

The fatal flaw in "Carlos" is its preoccupation with events over story. Here we are asked to simply follow a long timeline in the life of a callous killer who is also an abusive and sexist egomaniac, when he's not busy being a petulant brat. You'll get all the way through this saga (well, a few of you will) just to see the unsatisfying denouement in 1994, when French police arrest a bloated and adrift Carlos once he seeks medical help for testicular woes.

His huevos are what finally did him in, you say?

It seems to be our cue to shout: Good!


(three parts, 5 1/2 hours) airs Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday at 9 p.m. on Sundance Channel.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company