In the years since the Pentagon screening of Battle of Algiers, films from across the spectrum have grappled with how, and why, idealistic insurgency descended into nihilistic terror in a single generation. At 330 minutes over three made-for-French-TV episodes (opening here in a "roadshow" version as well as an abridgement which will go undiscussed), Olivier Assayas’s tracing of the terrorist known (but not here) as Carlos the Jackal’s trajectory is an obsessive, near-definitive immersion in the recent history of revolutionary violence.
When we meet Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (Edgar Ramirez), son of Venezuelan Marxists, in the early 70s, he’s left school in Moscow to join the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, because solidarity with the struggle is meaningless without committed action, or because action, pure and simple, is all he desires. Stationed in London and Paris, Carlos talks tactics with boys, spouts rhetoric with co-eds, and botches hits and bombings, the rapid professionalism of the handheld camerawork a black-comic contrast to the brute confusion of the execution; his career-peak 1975 raid on an OPEC conference in Vienna, the bulk of the middle chapter, feels even more like slapstick teetering over the abyss (he lets the Saudis buy him off after failing to fly to a country that’ll allow him to kill certain hostages). Like any movie structured around a glamorous outlaw’s rise and fall, Carlos speeds up as the present day approaches, our antihero growing antsy during lengthy longueurs between acts of violence; shunted off to lesser and lesser state sponsors, from Syria and the Stasi to Sudan, mercenary Carlos plots targeted havoc whose relevance to class struggle requires ever-subtler justification, while planting bombs to secure the release of captured coconspirators. The Cold War over and Islamic movements having supplanted Arab nationalism, he’s finally captured, sick and dazed, more myth than man. Which myth seems largely his own creation—outside OPEC hq, Carlos shoots off rounds for the media who’d later name him after a Fredrick Forsyth novel. Similar psychological speculations, and dialectical dialogues and exposition drops, are like pebbles of emphasis lumped into the torrent of narrative—rocky moments, but sinking to the bottom in the remembering. As Carlos accrues, feel free to spend sequences fixated on individual details: Ramirez’s alarmingly suave bearing and checked pants; the coiled post-punk soundtrack (Wire, New Order, the Feelies et al conjure a tone of anticipation); the bright Middle Eastern lobbies, continental walk-ups, Eastern Bloc-y office-tombs.
Assayas’s current, comprehensive BAM retrospective shows a filmmaker at home in the heady international sphere of businessmen, bands, film crews, human traffic. The multilingual Carlos expands outwards with its ever-growing cast of soldiers, strategists, ministers and bystanders, tipped off and gunned down, greasing skids and withholding support, following orders and flubbing assignments, arrested and released across both sides of the Iron Curtain, the Middle East and Africa—an obscure, global network of cause-and-effect.
As underground alliances shapeshift across private and public life, archival TV news footage, with its artifactual texture, acknowledges the historical consequences of secret meetings; disclaimered but scrupulously researched, Carlos is a sustained invocation of cultural memory. Discussing that other portrait of the zeitgeist as a young megalomaniacal nexus, Eric Hynes, in the Village Voice, described how "The Social Network doesn’t will meaning onto the material, but allows meaning to arise from accumulated circumstance." Carlos is likewise a data mine, a trove of the 20th century and beyond’s most relevant political and moral thought, in principal and practice, and an embodiment of the tragedy of the Left. It’s all here.
Opens October 15 at IFC Center (roadshow) and Lincoln Plaza (abridged cut); now playing on the Sundance Channel