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Carlos (2010) ****

January 7, 2011

written by: Olivier Assayas and Dan Franck
produced by: Daniel LeConte 
directed by: Olivier Assayas
not rated
330 min.(Roadshow Edition) & 165 min (Theatrical Version)
U.S. release date: October 12, 2010 (Theatrical Version via VoD), December 3-5, 2010 (Roadshow Edition) &  December 6-9, 2010 (Theatrical Version)  
A little over a month ago, I committed myself to watching five and a half hours of one film at the Music Box theater here in Chicago. That’s right, 330 minutes of one film, cut into three parts and two nights! It was quite an undertaking for me, but moreso for writer/director Olivier Assayas, who brought an epic and definitive portrait of a notorious international terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal, who had masterminded several acts of terror in Europe and the Middle East back in the 70’s and 80’s. It may not be the first time the character has been brought to the big screen but it certainly is the first time it has been accomplished in such a dense and massive scope.
The film’s exposure to the masses is just as lengthy and precarious as the biographical opus Assayas labored over. Originally presented as a French television mini-series, “Carlos” was screened at Cannes last year in its full form, in one sitting. Then it made the rounds on television throughout Europe before IFC Films eventually acquired the U.S. distribution rights and started releasing in this past fall. Although Assayas edited the shortened version, I cannot imagine going without anything I saw in what in the long version. They call it a “Roadshow Edition”, the same thing they called the equally long and epic, “Che” from Steven Soderbergh (Edgar Ramirez, who plays Carlos here, also starred in “Part One” of that 2008 film), and it is exactly as it sounds, an immersive film-going experience that the studio takes on the road.  


Venezuelan-born, Ilich Ramirez Sanchez (Edgar Ramirez “Domino” & “The Bourne Ultimatum”), was raised on Marxist ideals and named after the founder of the Russian Revolution. By the time we meet this charismatic and over-determined 24 year-old man, it is June 1973, and he has already been kicked out of Moscow’s Lumumba University (where he studied Economics) for his unruly behavior. Calling himself “Carlos”, he is now a self-proclaimed soldier and supporter of the Popular Front of the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), where despite some botched missions, he becomes their recognizable face. During this time, we’re taken from Paris to Beirut, where PFLP co-founder Waddi Haddad (a fantastic Ahmad Kaapour) cautiously appoints the cocky enforcer an assistant to the former  European agent Mohammed Boudia’s successor (after Boudia was offed by Mossad agents).  His first solo assignment is to kill off the Jewish head of Marks & Spencer, which ends up as a sloppy shot to the face in the victim’s London home. 
Carlos becomes more and more adrenalized by his brazen actions in Part 1, as we follow him all over Western Europe, attracting an assortment of liberators for the cause. Most of these devotees are skinny, chain-smoking guerilla girls, who satiate his incorrigible libido at his every whim. They are turned on by his confident machismo, certainly not by any gentleness or interest who gives them. His team makes their bull-headed way through various street bombings and airport attacks that Assayas films with expert craftsmanship. He fully immerses the viewer in the tension of stakes and risks at hand. You never really root for Carlos but nevertheless the palpable unease of the situation he’s in and the danger he puts his gang in, is always present.
No scene is this more apparent than in the close quarter environment of a Latin Quarter apartment in Paris, where Carlos relaxes with some leftie hipsters. They discover the full degree of his ruthlessness when he guns down two unarmed French secret policeman and a PFLP snitch he had trusted. He becomes known for this massacre, much to the dismay of Haddad, who disapprovingly complains, “You have become a star of the Western media!”
Which is exactly what Carlos, in all his fickle vanity, lives for.  Supporting and working for the PFLP is great, but worldwide recognition is even better! Even Saddam Hussein is impressed with his work and word comes traveling down the line that he wants Carlos to head up a major operation he’s funding to hijack the upcoming OPEC summit in Vienna. This 1975 raid becomes the magnum opus for Carlos, as he storms the meeting with a hand full of commandos, all looking like Black Panthers. The potential for casualties is high (both of his team and of the delegates they terrorize) but Carlos has crossed the point of no return. With him are two committed German nonconformists: pathological Nada (an icy Julia Hammer), who is not afraid to kill a cop, and the gentle and resourceful Angie (Christoph Bach), who winds up not having the stomach for the mission, literally. When Angie doubts whether he is capable of accomplishing what they have set out to do, Carlos responds, “We’re talking about the minimum military requirement of any revolutionary struggle”.

The OPEC incident crosses into Part 2 and is the spotlight to which Carlos basks in as he preens before a captive audience. It’s also where much blood is shed. Nada looses it and eliminates a plainclothes cop at close-range through the neck and another man gets his face shot off by the reckless punkette. Angie gets critically injured after he lobs a grenade at the oncoming Austrian soldiers and only adds to the already tense sequence of events as Carlos negotiates with the government for a DC-9. His notorious reputation may be increasing with his notoriety, but his arrogance and ambition will cost him. Unfortunately for Carlos, it turns out he had killed an important Libyan delegate in all the commotion and this infuriates Colonel Gadhafi, who withdraws any support he had for the PFLP.
Ramirez is electrifying in the role throughout the film, but especially here where his bravado is on full display. One standout scene is a one on one confrontation Carlos has with Ahmed Zaki Yamani (Badih Abou Chakra) , a cowering oil minister from Saudi Arabia, who tries to reason with Carlos before he kills him unless the Austrian government doesn’t cooperate. It’s a tense scene where the pale Yamani tries to play to the terrorist’s ego.
Carlos and his frazzled followers get their airline after many hours, they load it with the delegates and make their way to Algiers with the injured Angie in tow.  The plane is allowed to land  but that’s when the situation begins to crumble. While bonding with some of his captives and threatening others, he gets word that the Algerian government, despite what the PFLP promised, has condemned his attacks. The demand that all hostages are released while Libya also backs away, refusing to allow the terrorists to land in Tripoli. After all that, Carlos is now left with zero allies from the OPEC nations. He’s told by the pilot that they won’t make Baghdad unless they refuel and realizing he is essentially trapped, he concedes to a meeting with President Houari Boumedienne, which concludes in Carlos accepting twenty million for their escape and the release of the hostages.  
Disowned by the PFLP back in Yemen for reneging on the OPEC contract (in his defense, Carlos maintains he’s a soldier not a martyr), he is taken off a hijacking gig at Tel-Aviv airport. Disgruntled and insulted, Carlos breaks ties and goes into business as a self-sustaining merc for hire. He finds a backer in Syria and a new partner in Johannes Weinrich (a lanky Alexander Scheer), a Stasi-connected West German bookstore owner. Around this time, Carlos even shows signs of domestication as he marries the sultry Magdalena Kopp (Nora von Waldstätten), a revolutionary feminist. He is even promised the assassination job on Anwar Sadat by a Soviet spy and Colonel Gadhafi.


But it’s easy to get comfortable and that’s where Carlos is when we head into Part 3, which culminates in his slow descent into irrelevance. He gets fat, irritable and intolerable as his omnipotence flails. He holes up in Budapest, hardly has anything to do with his daughter, and throws himself a lavish birthday party at the Grand Hotel. While carousing with hookers in East Berlin (who were actually Stasi agents) he talks about taking out Radio Free Europe for Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, as his rivals beat him to the Sadat hit. He has lost his swagger, cunning, and edge.
Amid the shifting tide of world politics, Carlos becomes a harmless ghost. The fall of the Berlin Wall seals the end, as it becomes more challenging for any country to support, let alone tolerate his presence. By 1991, we find him bouncing all across the Middle East, looking for a place to just lay low and maybe get work. The French finally catch the now-ill Jackal in Sudan, wanted for murdering those policemen, two decades prior and sentenced to life.  He remains imprisoned to this day and in the end his actions had led him to be perceived more as a gloating politician more than a sacrificial soldier. 
This is my first exposure to Assayas, whose was Oscar-nominated last year for his film “Summer Hours” and I must say I plan on devouring the rest of his films. His fictional depiction of these historical events may appear with a disclaimer (much of what really happened remains unknown) but they feel no less authentic. Like Fincher and Sorkin in “The Social Network”, Assayas understands how to use what is known to enhance the narrative, while adding what is unknown for drama’s sake.
Injected throughout the film are snippets of docudrama-like footage that seem like actual news reports of the events. Other filmmakers would use this as exposition but here we see the big picture of what the world is learning, which develops how the terrorist reputation is growing. Adopting the aesthetic of the best American films from the 70’s, Assayas gives the majority of the film the nature of a Frankenheimer or Friedkin picture. There have been many films that chronicle the acts of contemporary terrorists but seldom do you find one at this magnitude.
Ramirez deserves to be recognized for losing himself in this complex character.  At the height of his power, Carlos is aware that he is a hunted man and often lost himself in vain pursuits. Ramirez, at times, channels Brando at the height of his craft, in his intensity and commitment to the role. His multilingual ability is quite impressive as well, as we hear him speak Spanish, French, German, Japanese, and a variety of Middle Eastern languages. He and Assayas make a good team as they give us a man who throws caution to the wind, living his life on his own terms and paying the price for it.
Some may feel like “Carlos” could have been pruned a bit, but this “Roadshow” is an engrossing event film that leaves no room for complaints.  I could care less about a film’s length as long as it keeps me invested and I don’t notice my watch.  None of that happened but I do see how watching this on DVD will have its advantage on one’s bladder. (That being said, I’ll be curious as to how this will be compiled on DVD/Bluray here in the States.)  I wouldn’t take back my time at the Music Box for anything. There really is nothing like getting lost in an old movie house and my investment in “Carlos” was one of the most rewarding cinematic experiences of the year.

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