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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Carlos and the mind of a terrorist

Posted By on Tue, Jan 11, 2011 at 4:04 PM

Before the events of the weekend involving the shooting of Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and deaths of six people, I had marveled at director Olivier Assayas' amazing three-part saga Carlos, about the Venezuelan-born, pro-Palistinian terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal. It's a gripping thriller, especially because Edgar Ramirez is so charismatic and menacing as Carlos. It doesn't cast him in a heroic light, but it's a film one watches with a mix of horror and fascination. (It is clearly stated that the film fictionalizes events and people.)

From what little is known about Jared Lee Loughner, the man captured at the scene in Tuscon and now facing murder charges, he appears to be mentally unstable more than a terrorist or political actor, though he seemed to grasp at some bizarre ideas about government. But so far, he seems to be nothing more than a deranged murderer.

At the beginning of an extended run of operations, Carlos, born Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, was highly ideological and committed to political movements. He was born to a Leninist father, attended university in Moscow and supported various left-wing terror groups around the globe. He personally shot French policemen, planned other assassination attempts and bombed public places. And there also is much we don't know about him, because of the unreliable nature of sources of information in the worlds of terrorism and espionage. His pro-Palestinian activities were enmeshed in Cold War politics. One of the elements Assayas' movie explores is the transformation of Carlos from a militant to a mercenary and perhaps madman. It also raises questions about the sanity of a purely political terrorist. Can a sane person really be committed to the killing of innocents as a method to bring about change? Especially if one remains free as long as Carlos. It's simply bizarre to watch such a passionate and yet remorseless figure.

Edgar Ramirez is captivating in the film, and he probably builds as much sympathy as is humanly possible for Carlos. He is depicted as extremely capable and ruthless. And from early on, a terror group run out of Yemen sees him as egotistical and not sufficiently dedicated to their cause. Tension builds as Carlos leads a group on what at first is a very successful hostage taking operation at an OPEC meeting in Vienna in 1975. It famously ended on an airport tarmac in Algeria, leaving Carlos a notorious international figure. But the group he was working for thought he had sold out the mission by not executing certain targets.

Carlos' career continued for more than 15 years afterward, but as a sort of loose cannon and uncompromising agent. The last part of Assayas' film imagines those years, as Carlos was watched by governments around the world and was considered too dangerous to hire by many groups. All the calculus was changed by the crumbling of the Soviet bloc. Assayas suggests that political limbo and his alienation both infuriated and frustrated Carlos. He had insisted as a point of his commitment that he would die for the causes he took up. But he didn't die. And that points to the absurdity of a terrorist ever reaching a retirement age. What does one make of all that revolutionary and ideological bravado when Carlos seems to be reduced to a weapons smuggler, divorced from any particular cause, shunned by former ideological allies?

One would have to credit Carlos with considerable intelligence to survive so long, especially given his notoriety. But one also has to wonder if a sane man could pursue such an elastically principled trajectory unchanged.

It's an amazing film about a complicated historical figure (who's still alive). It does less to glorify terrorism than The Godfather did to glorify organized crime. But it has some of the same epic feel to it, and Edgar Ramirez's performance can be mentioned in the same breath as some of The Godfather's legendary characters. The New Orleans Film Society screens over two days at the Prytania Theater at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday (one ticket is good for both parts).

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