“My name is Carlos. You may have heard of me.”
– Edgar Ramirez in Olivier Assayas’ Carlos

(This review refers to the 3-part, 330 minute version of Carlos. A 166 minute version is also available)

Olivier Assayas’ epic Carlos is a long but always fascinating ride that paints an entertaining and occasionally thrilling gloss on top of a heady framework of big ideas about global society. For structure, Assayas uses 20 years in the life of the notorious terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, aka Carlos, but his real aim is to explore the shifting landscape of an entire generation of terrorism from the early 1970s to the mid-1990s with threads that reach back to T.E. Lawrence and ahead to the rise of Al-Qaeda.

Whereas Steven Soderbergh’s similarly expansive Che used the rise and fall of an idealist to explore in part how the tactics of guerilla warfare could be so successful on one scale but a complete failure on another, Assayas uses the charismatic and motivated Carlos to look at how terrorists not only thrive in the cracks between competing world powers, but how they ultimately depend on those powers even as they’re working against them. Most importantly, Assayas shows how the end of the Cold War completely changed the dynamic. With world events no longer breaking cleanly along U.S./Soviet lines, the terrorism picture is much fuzzier and more unpredictable than ever.

Though Carlos is built on some big themes and though it is very European in its emphasis on character over plot, it is nevertheless totally engaging and never boring. The first two parts play well as straight ahead action pictures. Part one skips the Venezuelan born Carlos’ Marxist upbringing and education and jumps right to 1970 when he volunteered for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). It’s a telling choice by Assayas because Carlos talks the talk, but it’s not ideology that ultimately drives him. Instead, he’s a man of action and it’s his willingness to act that makes him feared and it’s the fear he inspires (amplified by the Western media) that makes him useful to the players who pull his strings. Most of the rest of part one involves a series of bombings and hostage takings as Carlos develops his network and builds his international reputation.

The action-packed second part centers mostly on the audacious 1975 hostage taking at OPEC headquarters in Vienna and the mission’s aftermath. It’s a long, gripping series of sequences that in themselves would make a satisfactory movie. Carlos was never more feared than at this point, but he was also proving himself as a man who could not be reliably controlled.

The third and longest part is more internal and lacks the pacing and action of the other segments, but it’s wholly necessary as it shows Carlos attempting to strike out on his own and ultimately confronting a new world order where the terrorist as celebrity is no longer a viable modus operandi. It’s not as vividly entertaining as the first two parts, but this is the whole point to which those other parts build and it’s ultimately the part that gives Carlos its deeper resonance.

Carlos is filled with terrific performances from an international cast of actors who are mostly unfamiliar to U.S. audiences. There are Germans, there are French, there are Japanese, there are Lebanese. Terrorism in the 1970s wasn’t just limited to Muslim extremists and many revolutionary groups worked together. There are so many characters and so many relationships that it would be difficult to track them all if they weren’t cast so distinctly and so well performed. The stand out naturally however is Edgar Ramirez who seizes upon his role as the magnetic, brash and impetuous Carlos. He’s handsome (much more so than the real man he’s playing), intelligent and soft spoken, but volatile and capable of violent outbursts when pushed by enemies or by the string of women he beds while pursuing a kind of rock star lifestyle. Though he mostly comes across as seductively likable, Assayas wisely avoids glorifying the character. It’s always clear he’s a bit of a monster hiding behind a veil of idealism, thriving on the attention and power he derives from his work.

At the same time, Carlos remains for the most part enigmatic. It’s difficult to say for sure exactly what makes him tick and Assayas probably isn’t offering any suggestions. He’s instead content to use Carlos as a brush with which to paint a larger picture – a fascinating, intricate, energetic and eminently rewatchable one.

Carlos. France/Germany 2009 (US release 2010). Directed by Olivier Assayas. Screenplay by Olivier Assayas and Dan Franck. Cinematography by Denis Lenoir and Yorick Le Saux. Edited by Luc Barnier and Marion Monnier. Starring Edgar Ramirez, Alexander Scheer, Alejandro Arroyo, Ahmad Kaabour, Talal El-Jordi, Juana Acosta, Nora von Waldstätten, Christoph Bach, Rodney El Haddad, Julia Hummer, Antoine Balabane, Rami Farah, Aljoscha Stadelman. 5 hours 30 minutes (or 2 hours 46 minutes). Not rated by the MPAA. 4 stars (out of 5).

2 Responses to “Carlos (2010)”

  1. Fabulously-written review. Much like your feelings on the movie, it pretty much had me engrossed start to finish!

    Can’t wait to see when and if it ever sees the light of day in Australia. From all accounts, it really is a masterwork that demands to be seen.

  2. Thanks Kevin, I hope you get a chance to see it.

    If it doesn’t play theaters, definitely check it out on DVD

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