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Film Review: Carlos

Carlos (2010; Directed by Olivier Assayas)

I fully expected to get more out of Olivier Assayas’ much-praised screen biography of notorious 1970s terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez (a.k.a. Carlos the Jackal) than I did. Strictly speaking, I could very easily have had more: this review concerns the 166-minute theatrical version of the work most readily available in North America, which was edited down from not only longer theatrical versions but from the original French television miniseries, which exceeded five and a half hours. Still, only some of the problems with Carlos are of the sort that could be remedied by fleshing out its sequence of events and expanding its narrative context. Assayas’ narrative of Carlos’s life and times conceivably ought to hold together as a compelling and involving text even with some judicious pruning, but in its second half especially it moves in jerks and becomes fatally anticlimactic.

For those unaware of the career of Carlos the Jackal (as I was), Assayas provides a kinetic and terse introduction. Following a stark murder in Paris staged like an out-take from Coppola’s The Godfather II, Ramirez Sanchez, played with a swaggering intensity by Edgar Ramirez, enters the scene. Arriving in Beirut in 1973, he moves through the streets in taxis and on scooters and up staircases to the gathering guitar rhythm of the Feelies’ “Loveless Love”. This sequence portends a crescendo of excitement that never quite arrives, but it’s a tremendous, cocksure montage in and of itself; Carlos may never be better, a backhanded bit of praise considering it happens in the first 10 minutes of the film.

The Venezuelan national Ramirez Sanchez is travelling to a meeting with the head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Wadie Haddad (Ahmad Kaabour). He will offer Haddad his services as a soldier for the cause of Palestinian liberation from Israeli domination, which in the 1970s was a struggle that attracted idealistic leftist radicals from around the world much as the Spanish Civil War did in the 1930s (and seemed like something that could be achieved by winning hearts and minds internationally, apparently). The premise alone seems outdated and unfamiliar to contemporary observers inculcated into the narrower dimensions of the War on Terror era. Terrorism, Assayas’ film makes it seem, was a more inclusive, more romantic, altogether gentler and more idealistic practice in the 1970s (though he doesn’t pretend that it didn’t kill plenty of innocent people regardless, or that its perpetrators were not criminals). A swashbuckling anti-hero like Carlos (the codename that Illich Ramirez Sanchez adopts early in his work for the PFLP) is inconceivable in the modern terrorist context of grim fundamentalist thuggery and unpersuasive brutality and mass murder. The extreme and illegal fringes of our politics have contracted and been usurped by ideologically-rigid identity politics, just as the more moderate political mainstream has been.

Anyway, Haddad places Carlos in Paris, working with a Lebanese contact codenamed Andre (Fadi Abi Samra). When Andre betrays Carlos to a trio of French DST agents, the Jackal executes his compadre and the agents with extreme prejudice in a tense and shocking scene in a Paris flat before fleeing to Haddad’s compound in Yemen. After another in a series of dressing-downs by an angry Haddad, Carlos is nonetheless given command of a bold kidnapping plot targetting an OPEC meeting in Vienna.

The depiction of the OPEC kidnapping, an infamous media event which made Carlos a notorious underworld celebrity, takes up the lion’s share of the edited theatrical Carlos, and any impact or resonance Assayas was mustering drains away once it is ended. The arc of the event itself is a fascinating demonstration of how meticulous operational planning and uncompromising ideological intent go swiftly awry when confronted with real-world complexities and intractable obstacles. Assayas trusts in Ramirez’s magnetism and it holds our attention through a series of twists and surprise outcomes, as the OPEC plot is compromised gradually until its grander intentions are reduced to a mere pay-off.

But once the OPEC kidnapping is over, Carlos essentially is, too. Unfortunately, it goes on for another hour or more, detailing Carlos’s break with the PFLP, his terrorist free agency, his dealings with a German group of militants, and his romance and attempt at family life with the former partner of one of the German operatives (Nora von Waldstatten). Once he’s finally arrested in the early 1990s, incapacitated by illness and left without powerful backers after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the legend of Carlos and of the film about him both seem irreversibly diminished.

It can be argued with alacrity that Olivier Assayas’ Carlos cannot be properly judged at its reduced length, that it was designed to tell its story over 300+ minutes and cannot be expected to be as effective at half that running time. This observation is fair enough, but even in its shortest iteration, the bloat of ennui and indulgence begins to set in. Plot and characterization holes may be filled, motivations and fates of supporting figures may have become clearer, and some good sequences may be restored or filled out. But what was only intermittently impressive or compelling about Carlos is unlikely to become more so with additional material. It starts strong, lays out a bravado sequence or three, and maintains a remarkable performance from its charismatic lead, but Carlos has about as much sustain as its subject or as his chosen political cause. As it’s turned out, that’s not as much sustain as those invested in it might have hoped for.

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Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews
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