The next time you have 5 and 1/2 hours on your hands…

Watch Carlos, a riveting, splendidly crafted (and extravagantly financed, I’m sure) miniseries about the infamous mercenary terrorist, Carlos the Jackal.

Produced by French and German television companies and directed by Olivier Assayas, this sprawling drama vividly recounts  the ascension and subsequent notoriety of Venezuelan-born, Palestinian-sympathizing, Muslim convert, Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, a truly fascinating historical figure. Ilich, born to Leninist parents, went to university in communist Russia and was soon expelled for bad behavior. The miniseries picks up some years later, with Ilich  in France, trying to prove his salt to the revolutionary movements in the Middle East.

The sheer internationality of the film is mind-boggling. I counted at least seven different languages being spoken throughout the film, but there were likely more than that. Scenes take place everywhere from Communist Romania to 1990s Sudan, and the crew gets major props for making these places look believable. The cost of all retrograde cars, retrograde airplanes and retrograde weapons is exorbitant, I’m sure, but they work to great effect. The scope of these revolutionary movements–the diversity encompassed–Japanese, German, French, Syrian, Libyan–is  a wonder to behold. Too bad, their tactics involve acts of guerilla warfare–car bombings, kidnappings and assassinations.

Dan Franck and Olivier Assayas, who wrote the screenplay, strike a great balance between making entertaining film and not romanticizing someone responsible for the deaths of many people. They seamlessly use archival footage to buttress their fictional recreations of terrorist attacks. The result makes for some fantastic, gripping drama. The OPEC hostage situation in the second part is particularly nail-biting.

Of course, for the whole thing to work, you have to have a compelling leading man; the kind of guy you want to watch for five and a half hours. Thirty-three year-old Edgar Ramirez is that man. Fluent in five languages, Ramirez seemed born to play Carlos, equal parts  charismatic, equal parts ruthless. Ramirez has that natural born swagger, that air of confidence and brute strength that Carlos must have had to be so menacing.

In one early scene, Carlos takes a bath and then struts around his bedroom naked. (It’s a European miniseries so they leave nothing to the imagination). At first, the scene struck me as extremely gratuitous. But later, (twenty years later in filmtime), we see Carlos again–paunchy, bloated, suffering from pain in his right testicle. The virility of the early Carlos, compared with the later Carlos is not something that weight gain alone can convey. Ramirez does a fantastic job of capturing Carlos’s steady aging.

He is also, insanely, insanely, good-looking. For that reason alone, I kept watching.

Additionally, Carlos manges to avoid many of the pitfalls that plague this genre of film. For starters, it doesn’t attempt to tell Carlos’s whole life story. It doesn’t even have that cliche-ridden, seemingly necessary childhood scene of young Carlos’s catalytic transformation into a ruthless and adamant terrorist. Carlos doesn’t try to explain, exonerate, or excuse Sanchez.

Another thing, Carlos narrowly avoids the misogyny almost inherent in this genre of film. Though it is abundantly clear that Carlos sleeps around, there are no seemingly obligatory scenes of naked women roaming around the room at the edges of a scene, like pretty flowers. That said, there is a fair amount of sex and nudity. But not all the women in the film are whores or long-suffering wives. At least two women are revolutionaries, and at least one of them is based on a real person, and gets some meaty scenes and gun action.

Carlos isn’t exactly a feminist (rather the opposite), but unlike one Mr. Aaron Sorkin, I did not get the sense that the director, Assayas, was using the rampant misogyny inherent in this hyper-masculine world of revolution movements as a reason to include lingering shots of breasts and butts.  But then I may be wrong. The miniseries is European. So nudity abounds.

But more than anything, what I found most compelling about the miniseries, was its history. I’ve always found Communist Europe interesting and there are some excellent fictional films on that era (The Lives of Others, and 4 months, 3 weeks, and 2 days among others) but it was really all the clandestine stuff that went down, the whole idea of a government paying someone to execute, well, executions of certain political enemies fascinates me, and seems somewhat surreal. Carlos relays that world to the viewer artfully.

It’s a good watch. I highly recommend. Just don’t view it when you’re trying to write a paper.


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