Terrorism is a bleak and tragic chapter in our world history books, but it is included for a reason. It is within that mindset that one should view Carlos. Carlos is a 5½ hour film (broken into three episodic chapters) that is as detailed as it is intense. It moves along at a breakneck pace as we follow Carlos across countries and continents, switching currencies and languages with ease. This kind of film transcends the “foreign-language” category because although it is technically a “French” film, it doesn’t have a national identity, due to its wide-ranging cast of characters and settings. It is an incredibly thorough portrait of one of the most notorious terrorists of all time: Carlos the Jackal. The script shines the more detailed and idiosyncratic it gets. For example, the nickname “The Jackal” is never uttered throughout the entire film because the script is filtered through Carlos’ eyes, and those who knew him best. He might have chosen the name Carlos (for he was born Ilich Ramírez Sánchez), but the public was the one to brand him “The Jackal.”
The film is broken into three distinct sections of Carlos’ career. The first section depicts his rise to fame when he started out acting on his own in order to gain the attention of the (then) leader of the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine), Wadie Haddad. The second episode depicts Carlos leading a team to kidnap eleven OPEC oil ministers (and anyone else who got in the way) to hold for ransom, his most heinous crime. The final act shows the demise of Carlos’ criminal career as he becomes increasingly detached from reality. The film’s structure is your typical “rise and fall” story, but with stylish direction and a real-life anti-hero at its center Carlos is a nerve-shattering portrait of one of history’s most hated criminals.
The running time may be staggering, but don’t let that keep you from checking out this harrowing biopic. Five and one-half hours may seem like a long time, but it’s nothing when it covers the span of two decades. Édgar Ramírez plays the titular terrorist and his performance is something to behold. He not only embodies Carlos physically (by gaining quite a few pounds to portray Carlos’ later days), but he plays the role with such conviction and egoism that he actually seems to genuinely buy into his various speeches, which is crucial in portraying the more delusional side of Carlos. Carlos the man was a violent terrorist with ill-conceived rationale, but Carlos the film is a grand cinematic achievement. This tension-filled history lesson is more riveting than any class you’ll ever take.
Note: This film is unrated because it was released on foreign television, but I can assure you the MPAA would have given it an R rating for language, violence, and adult situations.