Reviewer: Philip Tatler IV
Rating (out of five): *****
About halfway through Carlos -- Olivier Assayas’s five-and-a-half hour masterpiece -- the title character (Edgar Ramirez) tells a journalist that “the only struggle that matters is the oppressed versus the imperialist.” Were it up to Carlos, this struggle would be the focal point of a film based on his life. By the time he delivers these words, however, they are a fatuous hot wind. The focus of the film is not the struggle of the oppressed, it’s Carlos’s actual obsession: himself.
Following World War II – and especially the foundation of the nation of Israel in 1948 – the modern age of terrorism was more or less born out of colonial distemper in the Middle East. The (mostly Islamic) Arab populations sought freedom from occupations by the British, the French, and other European forces. More extreme factions demanded the foundation of Islamic theocracies/socialist republics and the destruction of Zionism and its supposed greatest ally – the United States.
Against this geopolitical background, Assayas and cowriters Dan Franck and Daniel Leconte posit the figure of Ilich Ramirez Sanchez – aka Carlos the Jackal. The film paints Carlos as a sort of Zelig of terrorism – connecting the dots between groups as seemingly disparate as Germany’s June 2nd movement, the Red Army Faction, the Japanese Red Army, the PLFP, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, the PLO, the Stasi, the KGB, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Carlos struts his way through a rogue’s gallery of some of the 20th century’s most notorious criminals.
At the beginning of the film, Carlos appears on the Beirut-based doorstep of the Palestinian cause, offering his services to Wadie Haddad (Ahmad Kaabour) as a point man for the PLFP in Europe. Haddad is skeptical of the young, inexperienced, and cocksure Carlos. But it’s clear that Carlos has an earnest, youthful vigor and Haddad can’t help but be seduced and allow Carlos into the fold.
Right away, Carlos’s contradictions are apparent. Upon his return to France, he dines at a posh restaurant with his girlfriend (the first of many we’ll see in the film), living high on the bourgeoisie hog, while espousing the nobility of the proletariat and the need for violent revolution. There’s a sense that Carlos is never aware of his own hypocrisies; he remains idealistic to the end, even if those ideals are constantly morphing.
Carlos is soon spearheading large operations throughout Europe – bombings, assassinations, hijackings, etc. culminating in the siege of an OPEC summit in Vienna. It’s here that the film, and Carlos, take a definite shape. We’re not watching the hagiography of an antihero. While I begrudgingly admit there’s a certain revolutionary romance to the cloak-and-dagger, safe house-hopping, jet-setting lives of Carlos and his “freedom fighters,” it’s clear that the film is not Scarface or Carlito’s Way for the NPR, world news-savvy set. Carlos is the portrait of a sociopath creating and dismantling and recreating himself in his own image.
Edgar Ramirez – who’s in nearly every frame of the film – plays Carlos as a bit of a cipher with an inner life devoted only to brooding. Ramirez’s Carlos is single-minded, self-obsessed, and yet is constantly adapting his plan to suit whatever terror group he’s allied with. Again, his struggle is for personal gain, not any particular cause. Assayas et al provide an interesting corrective to Carlos in the character of Angie (a character based on Hans-Joachim Klein, played by Christoph Bach). Angie keeps his integrity, ultimately eschewing violence while remaining passionate about his revolutionary ideals.
Film as history is a dangerous territory. It's all too easy to fall back on the unsubtle shorthand of the cinema when considering global politics/events. While the film could easily fall into montages of people counting money and blowing up buildings while Bowie's “Fame” pumps on the soundtrack, it instead relies on a quiet, patient repetition of Carlos and his compatriots scheming, attempting, failing, succeeding... capturing the days and months of tedium that lead to the brief, but shocking, acts of brutal violence. Part of this is due to Assayas' freedom within the sprawling miniseries format. But mostly it’s a testament to his obsessive need to get Carlos' story -- and therefore the story of modern terrorism and guerilla war -- right. No one does globalism quite as well as Assayas. Through films like Demonlover, Boarding Gate, and even his seminal treatise on modern filmmaking, Irma Vep, Assayas has played with the vexations and comic possibilities of a global melting pot.
Fortunately, Carlos acknowledges from the outset that it's as much about myth-building as it is about history. Each episode of the miniseries is prefaced with a card emphasizing that it is a work of fiction about historical events and persons.
Much has been said already about the excellent use of post-punk tracks by New Order, Wire, the Feelies, the Dead Boys, etc. in lieu of a score. The choice isn’t just because Assayas wants to show off his (impeccable) music taste. The music provides an interesting counterpoint to what we’re seeing. While smouldering rubble covers the innocent victims of terror, the eternally cool Carlos works very hard at branding his superstar image, complete with a rebellious rock soundtrack. My favorite example comes late in the film, when the Lightning Seeds’ poppy “Pure” is used to ingenious effect against a montage of Carlos and his new wife and daughter setting up a home in Sudan. In any other film, the song might accompany a silly, life-affirming romp through changing diapers, planting mums, hanging laundry, etc. In Carlos, it’s a reminder that he’s chosen to live a life that isn’t pure or simple, despite what window dressing he’d tries to slap on the proceedings.
As accomplished a crime story as has ever been made, Carlos is worthy of a place in the pantheon that includes Goodfellas, the first two Godfathers, and even The Wire.
The Criterion disc is amply supplemented with behind the scenes interviews, documentaries, commentary on several key scenes, etc. Of particular interest is a twenty-minute look at Assayas and crew creating the OPEC scene. The piece reveals that much of the filmmaking was as improvised as the terrorists’ schemes they were depicting.
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