What’s up with the notorious terrorist Carlos the Jackal?
A staff report from the straight dope science advisory board.
Dear Straight Dope: I have been trying to find information about the legendary terrorist Ilich (Carlos) Ramirez Sanchez and was wondering if you could help me — how is it he was really caught? The story about the Carlos lookalike in the movie The Assignment (an excellent movie by the way) is rather hard to believe. Was he caught? Is he alive? If so where? And what’s going on in his case? kYLE, cRESCENT cITY, ca
SDStaff bibliophage replies:
You don’t have to convince me that The Assignment is an excellent movie, kYLE. After all, it has everything Hollywood puts into only the finest of films: foul language, nudity, sex, adultery, shoot-outs, explosions, blood, gore, car chases, Donald Sutherland, and a plot so complicated you’ve got to watch it twice to figure it out. And best of all, it keeps to a minimum that pesky “historical accuracy” crap that always seems to get in the way of a good story. That’s not to say that the real story of the arrest of the terrorist isn’t interesting in its own right, but it probably wouldn’t make the sort of movie you’d like.
Part of the movie is based on reality, but the main plot is entirely fiction. There was no lookalike trained by the CIA and/or Mossad to trick the KGB into thinking Carlos was about to defect. The real Carlos was never a KGB agent anyway, despite persistent press accounts to the contrary. Although Carlos did live in eastern Europe for a time until the mid-1980s, the reasons he left are much more prosaic. But first things first.
In an early scene of the film, Carlos (Ilich Ramírez Sánchez) throws a grenade into a crowded Paris café. This attack really happened, in September 1974, resulting in two deaths and dozens of injuries. The motive for this attack (left completely obscure in the movie), was to pressure the French government into negotiating with members of the Japanese Red Army, who were then holding several hostages in the French embassy in the Hague. At the time, the Japanese Red Army and Carlos were both working for Wadi Haddad’s faction of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Carlos had become involved with the PFLP when he took terrorist training from them, in hopes of using what he learned in a guerrilla war in his native Venezuela. But he later gave up the idea of going back home and became a member of the PFLP instead.
Contrary to the impression left by the movie, Ilich was not yet a famous terrorist at the time of the café attack. Much later he would be falsely linked to the the attack at the Munich Olympics in 1972 that killed eleven Israelis and one West German. I’m sure he shed no tears for the victims, but the attack was carried out by a different Palestinian terrorist group, Black September. The terrorist acts Carlos had actually committed were far less sensational. He had shot British businessman and Zionist Joseph Edward Sieff in the face, but the victim survived. He had thrown a bomb into an Israeli bank branch in London, but it only partly exploded and no one died. He and his associates had bombed three pro-Israel newspaper and magazine offices in Paris, but again no one died. His next two attempts after the café attack didn’t gain him personal fame either: a pair of failed rocket-propelled grenade attacks against El Al airliners at Orly airport. There were some injuries, but no deaths, and Carlos managed to get away both times. It wasn’t until the year after the café murders that Carlos would become personally famous, because the authorities didn’t have a name or face to go with any of the earlier attacks.
In June 1975, Carlos committed the crime that would result in true infamy, and later in a life sentence for murder. The PFLP’s number-one man in Paris was a Lebanese named Michel Moukharbal. Tipped off by Lebanese authorities that Moukharbal was worth watching, the DST (the French domestic counter-intelligence agency) began surveillance of him, but failed to figure out exactly who he was. During the surveillance, they photographed Ilich and Moukharbal together. Eventually they arrested Moukharbal, and he agreed to lead three DST agents to the other man in the photograph. Not expecting any trouble (because they didn’t know they were dealing with a pair of hardcore terrorists), the three DST agents went unarmed to the apartment where Carlos was staying. When Moukharbal fingered him, Ilich brought out his gun and shot all four of them. Moukharbal and two of the three agents died, and Carlos escaped.
A much corrupted version of these events made it into the movie. Watch the scene where a Japanese associate of Carlos (instead of Carlos himself) kills a female informant (instead of Moukharbal) and several DST agents in 1987 (instead of 1975). You’ll notice that one of the DST agents takes a swig of some refreshing beverage just before the attack. Most moviegoers must have missed it, but this seems to be the director’s subtle hint that one of the DST agents was legally drunk at the time Carlos shot him.
These murders catapulted Ilich to fame. After the murders, the authorities knew their suspect under an alias, Carlos Martínez Torres, which is why he came to be known to history as Carlos the terrorist, not Ilich the terrorist. “Carlos” was one of his favorite aliases, but there were others. It’s an accident of history that he didn’t become known to the public under one of his many other false identities, such as “Bernard Muller.” (Somehow “Bernie the Jackal” doesn’t sound quite as fearsome.)
There are a couple of different stories of why he favored “Carlos” as a nom de guerre. The first has it that he was given the name by his PFLP recruiter, who thought it appropriate for a Spanish speaker working with Arabs. The recruiter believed Carlos was a Spanish corruption of the Arabic name Khalil, but the name is actually of Germanic origin. The other version is that Ilich named himself after the Venezuelan president Carlos Andrés Péréz, an acquaintance of his father’s.
In London, where Carlos had lived for several years, the new boyfriend of one of his ex-girlfriends found some of his things that she had been storing for him, including weapons and false identification. After the boyfriend read about the murders in Paris, he reported the stash to the Guardian newspaper, which contacted police. One of the reporters who visited the apartment happened to see a copy of Frederick Forsyth’s Day of the Jackal there. The book belonged to the boyfriend and not Carlos, but that doesn’t seem to have mattered to the press. His real identity as Ilich Ramírez Sánchez was revealed within a week or two of the murders, but “Carlos the Jackal” had already stuck by then.
Later in 1975 Carlos staged his most famous attack, the kidnapping of the oil ministers at OPEC headquarters in Vienna, as depicted in the movie. The PFLP may have had inside help in planning the operation, probably from Libya or Iraq, which were the most vocal supporters of higher oil prices. The plan was to ransom most of the ministers for the cash the PFLP desperately needed, but to murder the ministers representing Saudi Arabia and Iran, because those two countries were insufficiently dedicated to the Palestinian cause and to the cause of higher oil prices. Three people were murdered by Carlos and his group in the initial raid: an Austrian police officer and two low-ranking members of the delegations. Eventually the terrorists flew to Algeria with their hostages, all of whom were released after a ransom was paid, estimated at between $20 and $50 million.
Carlos was forced out of the PFLP by Wadi Haddad shortly after the OPEC kidnapping because he ransomed the Saudi and Iranian ministers instead of killing them, and because he was suspected of keeping part of the ransom for himself. Thus, despite reports to the contrary, he was already out of the organization when it orchestrated the famous hijacking of an Air France jet to Entebbe, Uganda, in 1976. But that portion of the ransom he turned over to Haddad, at least $10 million, was used to finance this and many other terrorist attacks against Israeli and European targets.
After leaving the PFLP, Carlos started up a sort of terrorist-for-hire business that he succinctly called “Organization of the Armed Arab Struggle — Arm of the Arab Revolution.” In fact, it had nothing to do with the Arab struggle and everything to do with lining his own pockets. During this time he operated mostly out of eastern Europe, but traveled on diplomatic passports helpfully provided by various Arab nations, such as Syria and South Yemen. The Soviet satellites mostly tolerated his presence (perhaps fearing repercussions if they turned him away), but they did little to actively help him. An exception was Romania, whose secret police (the Securitate) hired him to kill Romanian dissidents in France and to blow up the Radio Free Europe offices in Munich.
In 1982, his wife Magdalena Kopp was arrested in Paris for possession of explosives and was sentenced to four years in prison. Carlos began a terror campaign to pressure France into freeing her, and over the next several years he bombed civilian targets inside France and French diplomatic targets overseas. More than twenty people were killed, but it did not suffice to free his wife. She was released a few months early in 1985, but that was because of good behavior on her part, not her husband’s terror bombings. Her release seems to have marked the end of his direct involvement in terrorism.
At about the same time his wife was being freed, the communist countries were inviting him to leave. They were hoping for better trade relations with the U.S., but one of the State Department’s conditions was to throw Carlos and his group out. He and his wife moved to Damascus, but Syria forced him to give up terrorism after the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103. A few reports had hinted at his participation in that attack, but they turned out to be false. Nevertheless, Syria wanted him to keep a low profile as long as he stayed there. During and after the Gulf War, in which Syria fought on our side, life became even more uncomfortable for Carlos. In 1992 he moved to Jordan, where he married his second wife Lena (without bothering to divorce Magdalena, from whom he was estranged). In 1993 he moved on to Sudan, which has an Islamist government and close ties to Iran.
Hoping for better relations with the West, Syria passed on his new location to the U.S. The CIA sent agents to Khartoum to verify his presence there, and then alerted the French. In return for Iran’s influence in getting Carlos from Sudan, France — in violation of treaty terms — released two Iranian terrorists instead of extraditing them to Switzerland where they were wanted for murder. Under pressure from Iran, Sudan agreed to help. It didn’t hurt that France sold Sudan military communications equipment it needed for its civil war when other Western countries wouldn’t.
While Carlos was still groggy from surgery for a painful varicocele, the Sudanese government told him of a murder plot against him and whisked away to a country house outside Khartoum. Later, away from witnesses, he was drugged, handcuffed, put into a sack, and taken to the airport where the French DST picked him up and flew him to France. This French operation was strictly illegal, since there was no extradition agreement, and the arrest warrant was invalid outside France. This little technicality was swept under the rug easily enough. The authorities maintained the fiction that Carlos had drugged and handcuffed himself, tied himself in the sack, and boarded the plane of his own free will. One court did find in 1996 that his capture was extralegal, but luckily this decision was overturned on appeal.
Ever since his capture, he has been held in isolation from other prisoners at the infamous La Santé prison in Paris. He was tried and convicted in 1997 for the murders of the two DST agents and Michel Moukharbal in 1975. If he had been caught sooner, he might have faced the guillotine, but France abolished the death penalty in 1981. He instead received the maximum sentence of life in prison.
What has Carlos been up to lately? He went on a hunger strike in 1998 to protest prison conditions, but gave it up after twenty days. Last year it was announced he would marry one of his lawyers, Isabelle Coutant-Peyre. Before meeting Carlos, the blushing bride helped defend the Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie. I’d say she has a lot to blush about. Both Carlos and Isabelle will need to divorce their current spouses before the nuptials can proceed.
Will he ever get out of prison? At the time of the murders, French law did not allow for a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, so he might still get out some day. If the release of the Iranian terrorists is any guide, I suspect it will depend on who wants him out and what they’re willing to give up. (Oh dear, is my cynicism showing again?) So far, his only supporter with any real power seems to be Venezuela’s current president, Hugo Chávez, but it’s not clear how serious he is about it. Carlos is no good to the French as a future bargaining chip if he isn’t in their custody. That may be the real reason France has refused Austria’s request to extradite him for the murders at OPEC headquarters in 1975. The reason they cited is that the Austrians failed to renew their arrest warrant within ten years, which is not required under Austrian law. The French seem to have become sticklers for legal technicalities in the few years since Carlos tied himself up in a sack in Khartoum.
Jackal: The Complete Story of the Legendary Terrorist Carlos the Jackal by John Follain
SDStaff bibliophage, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
Send questions to Cecil via [email protected].
STAFF REPORTS ARE WRITTEN BY THE STRAIGHT DOPE SCIENCE ADVISORY BOARD, CECIL'S ONLINE AUXILIARY. THOUGH THE SDSAB DOES ITS BEST, THESE COLUMNS ARE EDITED BY ED ZOTTI, NOT CECIL, SO ACCURACYWISE YOU'D BETTER KEEP YOUR FINGERS CROSSED.
- Cast & crew
- User reviews
An American naval officer is recruited for an operation to eliminate his lookalike, the infamous terrorist Carlos The Jackal. An American naval officer is recruited for an operation to eliminate his lookalike, the infamous terrorist Carlos The Jackal. An American naval officer is recruited for an operation to eliminate his lookalike, the infamous terrorist Carlos The Jackal.
- Christian Duguay
- Sabi H. Shabtai
- Aidan Quinn
- Donald Sutherland
- Ben Kingsley
- 73 User reviews
- 28 Critic reviews
- Annibal Ramirez …
- Jack Shaw (Henry Fields)
- Maura Ramirez
- KGB Head Officer
- Carl Mickens - CIA
- Joey Ramirez
- KGB Technician
- Nigerian Oil Minister
- Venezuelan Oil Minister
- OPEC Receptionist
- All cast & crew
- Production, box office & more at IMDbPro
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- Trivia Based upon a true story.
- Goofs Ramirez's training appears to take place on Mount Royal, particularly around the Belvedere (during the remote snowmobile scene). This whole area is a well-known city park as well as a popular tourist area, which offers a great view of Montreal's skyline that has been captured in many photographs. This makes it a very unlikely area to hold a covert training operation.
Annibal Ramirez : What do you think is out there, Maura? A safe little world with your shopping malls, you little league and ballet lessons? Hey! People are killing, Maura. And I'm one of them. Not neat and surgical like firing a missle from some sub but close enough so his brains splattered on me. And they weren't even the enemy Maura. It was to keep from blowing a cover. I've killed men, I let a friend die, I betrayed everything I've ever believed in. And yes, I've fucked other women. And you know what's worse? I've made you and the children a target because someone out there is going to kill you unless I kill him first. That's my job, Mona. And if you don't mind, I'm late for work.
- Connections Featured in Siskel & Ebert: The Peacemaker/Soul Food/The Edge/The Ice Storm/The Assignment (1997)
- Soundtracks The Most Wonderful Time of the Year Performed by Andy Williams Written by George Wyle and Eddie Pola Courtesy of Barnaby Records Inc. By Arrangement with Celebrity Licensing Inc.
User reviews 73
- Jun 24, 2019
- How long is The Assignment? Powered by Alexa
- September 26, 1997 (United States)
- Jerusalem, Israel
- Triumph Films
- Allegro Films
- Allegro Film Productions V
- See more company credits at IMDbPro
- Sep 28, 1997
- Runtime 1 hour 55 minutes
- Dolby Digital
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"The Assignment'' is a canny, tricky thriller that could serve as an illustration of what this week's similar release, "The Peacemaker,'' is not. Both films involve an international hunt for a dangerous terrorist, but "The Peacemaker'' is a cartoon and "The Assignment'' is intelligent and gripping--and it has a third act! Instead of an action orgy, it has more than enough story to see it through to the end and keep us absorbed the whole way. Yes, it ends with a deadly struggle, but as the setting for another stage of the movie's web of deceit.
The film is centered on a CIA plot to discredit and kill Carlos, the feared terrorist who operated for years, despite the best efforts of the free world's security agencies to capture him. Donald Sutherland plays Fields, the CIA agent for whom Carlos has become an obsession, and when he finds a U.S. Navy officer named Ramirez ( Aidan Quinn ) who's a dead-ringer for the terrorist, he devises a risky scheme: He'll train Ramirez to impersonate Carlos, then use the double to convince the KGB that their attack dog is disloyal. As a result, Carlos will either be dead or, almost as good, discredited in the eyes of his sponsors.
Fields works with an Israeli named Amos ( Ben Kingsley ) in training Ramirez, after first using psychological tactics to persuade the reluctant Navy man to leave his wife and family and become a counter-terrorist. (The scene where Fields shows Ramirez a dying child in a hospital is a direct echo of " The Third Man ".) Then the false Carlos, is sent into the field to work the deception, which I will not describe.
"The Assignment'' is fascinating because its characters can be believed, because there is at least a tiny nugget of truth in the story, and because from the deceptive opening credits, this is a film that creates the right world for these characters to inhabit. Sutherland's CIA man is especially well drawn: "I don't have any family,'' he says, "and I don't have any friends. The only people I've ever cared about were the ones I've killed.'' Quinn plays a dual role, as Ramirez and Carlos, and has some tricky scenes, especially one in which a former lover of Carlos helps train him sexually so that he will be a convincing bedmate for another of the terrorist's lovers.
The screenplay, by Dan Gordon and Sabi H. Shabtai , has action scenes that grow from the story and are not simply set pieces for their own sake. It's impressive the way so many different story threads come together all at once near the end.
The director, Christian Duguay , is new to me. What he has is a tactile love of film, of images. He and the cinematographer, David Franco, don't use locations so much as occupy them; we visit Jerusalem, Paris, Vienna, Washington, Tripoli and Moscow (or sets and effects that look like them) and yet the movie's not a travelogue but a story hurtling ahead.
I have seen so many lazy thrillers. They share the same characteristics: Most of the scenes involve the overpriced star, the villain is underwritten, and the plot is merely a set-up for the special effects, the chases and the final action climax. "The Assignment'' gives us ensemble work by fine actors, it has a villain of great complexity (developed through the process of imitating him), and at the end there is a tantalizing situation for us to unravel as we leave the theater.
Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.
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The Assignment (1997)
Rated R For Strong Violence, Sexuality and Language
Claudia Ferri as Maura Ramirez
Aidan Quinn as Annibal Ramirez/Carlos
Ben Kingsley as Amos
Celine Bonnier as Carla
- Christian Duguay
- Sabi H. Shabtai
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Film details, brief synopsis, cast & crew, christian duguay, aidan quinn, donald sutherland, ben kingsley, claudia ferri, celine bonnier, technical specs.
Cuban-American navel officer Annibal Ramirez is a dead ringer for Carlos "The Jackal" Sanchez. His features are so close to those of Sanchez that he is brutally interrogated as a terrorist while on vacation in Israel. American counter-intellegence agent Jack Shaw and his Israeli counterpart Amos realize they can use Ramirez as bait for "The Jackal." Wanting to serve his country, Ramirez is unsure he can survive the physical and psychological trials he must endure to become like Sanchez. By the end of the training, however, Ramirez knows Sanchez better than anyone alive and enters the world as "The Jackal."
Liliana komorowska, mitchell david rothpan, gregory hlady, gabriel marian oseciuc, frederic desager, kliment denchev, yonathan gordon, ndiouga sarr, manuel aranguiz, leni parker, jacques lavallée, david francis, daniel pilon, richard jutras, hisham zayed, ted whittall, francis del vecchio, lisa wegner, lucie laurier, neil kroetsch, matthew dupuis, paul stewart, claude genest, michael caloz, david franco, heinz becker, louis bouchard, mark knoeffel, andres lange, martin morf, marcello adatto, benoit alarie, francois allard, pierre allard, alec anderson, michael annett, georges archambault, itzik ben aroya, henri aubertin, jean-paul auclair, nancy auclair, cheryl bainum, mihaly balasko, sandor balo, gyula balogh, itzhak bareli, krisztina barkoczky, franco battista, marc h beaulieu, louise bedard, benoit begin, marc bélanger, novek belanger, richard belanger, caroline beliveau, jocelyne bellemare, christian bergeron, sylvain bergevin, josee bernard, jacques f bernier, michel bernier, mickey binyamini, brian black, andras bogdan, jean boivin, michel bolduc, michel b bordeleau, philippe bosse, diane boucher, virginie boudreau, claude boulet, mary bradley, anderson chet bradshaw, cecile braemer, karoly braunner, michel brohez, michel brouillette, joseph lang browns, joseanne brunelle, frances calder, andrew d campbell, jean-francois campeau, helene canse, alain caporicci, johanne caporicci, annie carignan, claudine carpentier, tim j carroll, denis caspar, yves castonguay, jason cavalier, michel cerro, guylaine chagnon, stephane charron, jean chasse, jozsef cirko, steve clark, steven clark, alain clouatre, guy cloutier, gary coates, joseph n cohen, didier communaux, stephane connolly, sam coppola, normand corbeil, ryal cosgrove, francis covan, mike cozons, donna croce, gabor csakovics, zsolt csutak, denise d'amours, francois daignault, louis dandonneau, gary daprato, james darling, luc deguise, jean-yves denis, louise deschenes, marc desourdy, melina dicristo, robert ditchburn, kristen dolenko, jacques dorion, marion doucet, pascal dufaux, gina duhamel, paul dupont, yanick dusseault, john dykstra, bram eisenthal, shimon elimelech, zsolt feher, attila feherhegyi, bruno ferland, deak ferrand, natalie fleurant, raoul fortin, martin fournier, charlene francique, sassi franco, monika frankl, mario fraser, rene frechette, michel frenette, zoltan fulop, yiftach gabai, daniel gagnon, francine gagnon, sylvie gagnon, paul-emile gallant, gilbert garcia, jean-francois garcia, patrick garcia, benoit gauthier, francois gauthier, michel gauvin, sebastien gervais, nimi getter, michel ghorayeb, michel ghoyareb, stephen gilbert, natalie ginat, suzanne gingras, manon girard, moshe gissis, johnny goar, shai goldenberg, francois gosselin, melany goudreau, anne grandbois, jennifer-lys grenier, naama halperin, johnny harkala, avidan hatuka, terry hawkins, claude hazanavicius, simon hebert, r j henning, roger hewett, mark hoffman, julie houle, monika hufnagel, daniel huysman, france hyman, silvi imbeault, yehuda sar israel, pierric jouvante, michael joy, daniel juneau, boaz katzenelson, nick kerridge, shabtai kimhi, yaacov kimmelfeld, bobe kiraly, attila kiss, pini klavir, michael konydes, daria korolus, agota kovacs, balazs kovacs, gabor kovacs, tamas krausz, yohannan kredo, maurice krouche, brigitte labelle, helene lafrance, eric lafrance st-pierre, stephen laidlaw, miscellaneous notes.
Released in United States Fall September 26, 1997
Limited Release in United States September 26, 1997
Released in United States on Video March 17, 1998
Based upon a true story.
Completed shooting June 27, 1996.
Began shooting February 11, 1996.
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The forgotten ’90s thriller The Assignment took paranoia to another level
What Are You Watching? is a weekly space for The A.V Club ’s staff and readers to share their thoughts, observations, and opinions on film and TV.
One of my favorite things I’ve seen recently is The Assignment , a peculiar 1997 thriller directed by Christian Duguay as a follow-up to his economically accomplished (and quite faithful) Philip K. Dick adaptation Screamers . Not a perfect film, but the Byzantine plot makes a rich canvas for the B-movie paranoia that was Duguay’s forte for a time (his debut was Scanners II: The New Order , a direct-to-video sequel to the David Cronenberg film), with enough twisted Hitchcockian themes to compensate for some of its technical and budgetary shortcomings. Set in the mid-1980s, it stars Aidan Quinn in a bizarre dual role as the real-life terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (a.k.a. Carlos The Jackal, subject of Olivier Assayas’ Carlos ) and Lt. Commander Annibal Ramirez, an American naval officer whose resemblance to the international fugitive is discovered when a Mossad team mistakenly nabs him while he’s out of uniform on shore leave.
Duguay’s direction is thrifty, but still eccentric, starting with a literal piss-take on the Spielberg-style one-shot sequence: an opening shot of Paris circa 1974 that cranes from a couple of schoolboys peeing in the street up through some special effects and straight into a sex scene. His Carlos is overtly sexy and monstrous, introduced perpetrating a grenade attack on a café ( for which the real Carlos recently received a third life sentence ) in a hippie disguise baldly modeled on Gary Oldman’s daytime look in Bram Stoker’s Dracula . So whenever the craft falls short (e.g., a cheaptastic version of the OPEC siege that looks like a ’90s true-crime show reenactment), the existential queasiness and serpentine plotting persevere.
Returning to the States after the Mossad incident, Lt. Commander Ramirez is slowly bullied by a veteran CIA spook, Shaw (Donald Sutherland), into taking part in a convoluted plan to trick the KGB into doing the agency’s dirty work by assassinating the real Carlos. Ramirez’ mission is to fool the Soviet contacts in Carlos’ network into thinking that the terrorist is secretly a CIA asset. Leaving behind his family, Ramirez is transported to a dilapidated compound where Shaw and a Mossad handler named Amos (Ben Kingsley) spend months basically turning him into Carlos The Jackal, conditioning him into the reflexes and always-alert mindset of a paranoid fugitive, quizzing him on minutiae on a full-sized apartment set (the number of cups and plates in a kitchen cabinet, the contents of a fridge), forcing him to eat their target’s least favorite foods until he also learns to hate them, dosing him with LSD.
The idea behind this cross between Method acting and brainwashing is that Ramirez—a stubborn family man, the all-American son of an anti-Castro Cuban—won’t be able to get by on resemblance alone; he needs Carlos’ survival instincts and alpha-predatorial swagger. But the results are predictably fucked-up, conveyed by Duguay through visual and narrative reflections—an uncommon combination of very blunt filmmaking and strangely elaborate subtext.