The cause of Carlos

Submitted by Matthew on 4 November, 2010 - 3:32 Author: Stan Crooke

If you’ve ever thought of a career as an internationalist terrorist — forget it. Okay, there might be a plus side to it. You become an international jet-setter. A media celebrity. An icon of radical chic.

You eat in the best restaurants, enjoy the best food, drink the best wines. You dress like Che Guevara after a visit to Saville Row.

(And why not? After all, have you ever heard anyone raise the slogan: “An international terrorist on a worker’s wage”?)

But there’s a downside to being an international terrorist as well.

Governments use you for their own devious ends. You smoke incessantly. Your boss sacks you for not killing enough people. Your wife complains that she can’t give your daughter a decent upbringing. You become a has-been. You put on weight. And eventually you get caught and sent to prison — for a very long time.

(Just in case anyone in the audience is too dim to work this out for themselves, one of Carlos’s female acquaintances spells it out for everyone: “Fighting capitalism with guerrilla means is romantic but doomed to failure. No more desperate causes. They lead nowhere.”)

Even worse, some film director might decide to make a five and a half hour film about you, trim it down to a two and a half hour version, and put it on general release. The result: Olivier Assayas’s “Carlos”.

Watching the general-release film is like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle from which over half the pieces are missing, and without the picture on the box to tell you how it all fits together.

The film begins in 1973 — a mere 14 years after the real-life Carlos first became politically active — with his attempt to kill a leader of the British Zionist Federation.

Three corpses later (after Carlos has killed two French detectives and a Palestinian informer) it is 1975 and time for the hostage-taking of the leaders of OPEC (Organisation of Petroleum-Exporting Countries) in Vienna.

This is followed by a succession of short shots of Carlos on his travels in the late 70s. (Another downside of being an international terrorist: very difficult to find a place called home.) German terrorists pop up all over the place, and KGB chief Yuri Andropov puts in a cameo appearance.

Suddenly, it’s 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, soon followed by Carlos’s capture in 1994. (No mention, therefore, of Carlos’s political evolution over the following decade and a half — or, mercifully, his excruciating love poems to his third wife.)

In fact, so little of Carlos’s actual and attempted terrorism is covered in the film that the viewer is left wondering how he ever managed to achieve notoriety. He’s a world-famous international terrorist — but he hasn’t killed anyone since 1975?

The Carlos depicted in the film is a pretty odious character: vain, self-centred, narcissistic, domineering, misogynistic — and pretty dim politically. His terrorist-political activity, such as it is, is essentially a space in which to exercise his ego.

Again, for anyone slow on the uptake, this is spelt out by one of the characters in the film. She sums up Carlos as: “Bourgeois arrogance hiding behind revolutionary rhetoric.”

Similarly, when Carlos says that he has done much for the Palestinian cause his interlocutor replies: “No, you have done much for the cause of Carlos.”

“The war is over,” one of Carlos’s fellow terrorists tells him towards the end of the film. Well before then, however, the “war” has become an irrelevance. It’s the film you wish was over.

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