Directed by Olivier Assayas
France and Germany
The name of Carlos the Jackal, the elusive terrorist of the 1970s and 1980s across Europe, spurs images of intense fear, and probably not the soft-rounded body of Édgar Ramírez. Yet just because his body might not look right does not mean Mr. Ramírez does not know how to use such a body, especially when he must command the screen for five and a half hours. The actor, previously seen in small roles in films like Domino and The Bourne Ultimatum, electrifies the screen with his conviction and movement. He doesn’t just shout Marxist ideology; and throws his entire body, and thus his entire life into his causes. Under the direction of Olivier Assayas, Mr. Ramírez has taken a figure only known by name than reputation, and given him a life force that is at once terrifying yet somehow compassionate and beautiful.
And thus is the film Carlos, directed by Mr. Assayas, and certainly the most epic production at this year’s festival. Spanning twenty years, ten languages, and at least fifteen countries, Carlos is an ambitious look into a controversial historical figure than is enrapturing and invigorating, and hardly ever dull. Its length is certainly a factor that will dissuade some viewers—the film runs a whooping 319 minutes—but for the most part, the time flies as the film shoots through its mosaic like structure, hoping between moments in Carlos’s life, and trying to find some connection. With plenty of violent action, the film could be mistaken for a big Hollywood production, except the subject manner and Mr. Assayas’s trained camera make it something of a completely different nature.
The film does open with an explosion though, of a Palestinian supporter in France, and young Carlos, barely twenty and full of revolutionary and violent fervor (He tells us at one point that “behind every bullet is an idea”), is happy to join the International fight for the freedom of the country. Carlos screws up his first mission—and many after that—but he takes pride in his work and his cause. In many ways, this film is about procedure. We see numerous times as Carlos and his allies simply move weapons caches across Europe from the Japanese Red Army to German socialist organizations. Mr. Assayas is clearly interested in the mundane activities that sometimes these men are put through, and watching the negotiations with world leaders and terrorists is simply fascinating, often in a way that amounts to a “not in my backyard” attitude toward Carlos.
Of course, when there is action, Mr. Assayas holds no bounds. Having previously done thrillers that subvert action such as Boarding Gate, the director simply jumps in with his close-knit sequences, which are superbly edited together. What is always more fascinating though is the stakes of the sequences, which are simply not about getting from point A to point B. In the middle of the film, Carlos takes the world leaders at the 1975 OPEC meeting hostage, and then is presented with problem after problem on how to turn a bad situation into a good one. We don’t know how this is going to end, and certainly, Assayas does not complicate the sequences with an over-indulgence of bullets and explosions, just straight cinematic tension, both stylistically and ideologically.
As the film proceeds into its final third (the film is broken into three parts, as it originally played on French television), it is hard to keep up with the more and more frustrating seuqneces, as we watch Carlos thrown around Europe and the Middle East like an unwanted child, a “historical curiosity” as he learns the CIA coins him. But certainly, the film is well constructed, using a series of fade outs, to represent to ongoing struggle day after day to simply exist and make due, an icon who had fallen so low. Yet the fact is, we sympathize with this man. Despite his frightening methods, as we have seen him kill many innocents (in a haunting shot, an agent of Carlos places a suitcase bomb on a train just behind an elderly woman), as well as his Marxist leanings, we feel bad for a man who has worked so hard for so much get so little. Communism falls in Europe, Anwar Sadat is assassinated by Islamists, and nations that supported him fall under the influence of the overpowering West. While I felt the fatigue in that last hour, there was also simply the fatigue that a man who had done so much, after watching procedure after procedure, negotiation after negotiation, come to an end in one of the most pathetic ways possible.
In the end, Carlos is a daunting film, but one that is truly exciting as well. It’s a cold and calculated film for Mr. Assyass, but its also one that is full of edge-of-your-seat thrills (as well as plenty of steamy, European sex) and bursting with ideas about history. The film never judges the action of the terrorist to be good or bad, but Mr. Assyass is simply astounded with the dedication that a man like this has. It’s a film that might be better on television in which you can watch it at your own pace, but it would be a shame as well, as Mr. Assayas and Mr. Ramírez simply capture a giant frame like no other, leaving your with a bullet hole through the gut, and highly entertained as well.