December 29, 2010
Carlos (2010) *****
Directed by Oliver Assayas
Note: I saw and am reviewing the 330 minute uncut version. There is also a shorter 165 minute version of the film that is presently available On Demand.
Carlos (2010)- Epic, bloody and fascinating look at an insecure man's rise and fall as a terrorist. Ramirez=brilliant. 330 minutes fly by. *****/5
What exactly goes into making a successful film that's five and a half hours long? Let's be honest here and question whether 330 minutes is really that much of an accomplishment for the filmmaker. It seems like sitting through a film that long is more noteworthy for the audience member than the director, screenwriter and actors. Don't most movies start out longer before they go through the editing process? Avatar and the Lord of the Rings apparently had hours more footage that didn't make it on screen, thereby assuring that special editions and collectors editions will be ready to purchase on DVD and Blu-Ray in the future.
Having sat through a five and a half hour film is something I'm quite proud of. I've never seen a film this long before, and for most of the three and a half hour plus films I've seen in the past, I often would watch in more than one sitting. It's not appropriate to applaud a filmmaker simply because of a film's running time. Granted, if test audiences don't like a film because it's too long, then studios will probably demand that cuts be made, so there's an argument to be posited that if a movie over five hours long gets released as is, then maybe its muscular length might just be merited. Of course, as always, the best way to judge any film is to actually see it.
I talk about my thought process because the only real reason I saw Carlos is because of the challenge of sitting through a film that's so lengthy, especially one that is only playing in the DC area for four days as part of its Roadshow Tour around the country. Granted, I liked Assayas' film Summer Hours from last year, though I'm almost positive that I wouldn't have seen his newest film in the theater if it had a normal running time. On Thanksgiving Day, I trekked up to Silver Spring to the fantastic AFI Silver theater, paid fifteen dollars, received my 40 page collector's edition booklet, exchanged my ticket for a free box of popcorn, bought a beer and sat down for part one of Carlos.
We're introduced almost immediately to a young handsome husband and father named Ilich Ramírez who's asked to be a lookout for a ransom mission carried out by a bunch of young Japanese terrorists. This is a singularly obsessive individual, which makes sense considering that he ultimately becomes a brutally violent terrorist who is known the world over simply as Carlos. He's not only zealously committed to the Palestinian cause, but he's also radically insecure about his own physical appearance. One of the journeys within the film focuses on Carlos' body. He's often seen nude or wearing an open shirt, and the contrast between his physical form from beginning to end is quite startling. He goes from near perfect physical perfection to overweight, bloated and dealing with an embarrassing testicular ailment which ironically ultimately leads the French equivalent of the CIA to track down Carlos immediately after a routine medical procedure.
His physical appearance matches the trajectory of his effectiveness as a terrorist throughout his career. His early successes and rapid rise to power does illicit a certain element of awe. He's a natural leader--courageous, intelligent, frightening and magnetic. Perhaps his most dramatic accomplishment (if you will) as a terrorist occurs when he holds the oil ministers of OPEC hostage at their conference in Vienna. He leads a group of German militants dedicated to the Palestinian cause, and their ultimate purpose in this mission is to kill one of the ministers. Carlos' superior Wadie Haddad, played by Ahmad Kaabour, is furious with Carlos because he ultimately decides to negotiate a way out of the situation by gaining money and escape instead of killing the minister. They cut ties, and from this point on, Carols freelances his services to whatever country will pay him the most.
Carlos becomes a media sensation, and match that with his growing paranoia of getting caught, and he begins to feel the pressure to succeed. He goes behind the Iron Curtain, working between Budapest and East Berlin along with his friend from the remaining revolutionary cells Johannes Weinrich (Alexander Scheer) and his wife Magdalena Kopp (Nara Von Waldstatten). Eventually Magdalena leaves Johannes for Carlos, and because of the chain of command, Johannes can do nothing but let this happen without complaint.
He carries out attacks to destabilize Europe while living in Budapest and protected by Syria. As the world begins to change and communism crumbles, Carlos and Magdalena must escape to the Sudan, the only country that will have him. Now a fat man well past his prime, Carlos is forced to go into hiding because of intelligence agencies of several countries desiring his capture and arrest. As his power and his health atrophy, his cover begins to atrophy as well, and with French intelligence hunting him, there's only so long he'll be able to maintain his freedom.
As you can see, there's certainly enough for an immensely entertaining five and half hour film. There are dozens and dozens of significant characters, and the dialogue helps put every mission and every attack into perspective. It's important to pay close attention so as not to get lost in a barrage of names, faces, locations and dates. The sequential history of the life of Carlos is important, but the real treats in Carlos are the heft of the film making and the glory of the performances.
Assayas shot all over the world, and many languages are employed based on the real life languages spoken by the people showcased. A surprising amount of the film is in English as that became the universal diplomatic tongue of the twentieth century. The reenactments of the attacks in the cities in particular are especially impressive. The scale in which Assayas made this film is awe inspiring.
Of course, with such an epic, perhaps the most fundamental key to success is the casting of the multi-lingual lead role, and without a doubt, Edgar Ramirez not only rises to the challenge, but he provides an electricity that emanates from the screen every single moment he appears. There's so much to the man Carlos. In some ways, he's a born leader with strategic intelligence perhaps unmatched by anyone else in his generation. Nonetheless, he's the sort of person who's willing to end innocent lives in order to promote a cause. He's not the sort of person that's trying to deceive people by pretending to be just another member of society when he's not terrorizing. Carlos wears his intentions on his sleeve, and he's willing to give up everything for his cause. Ultimately, he does give up everything, and when this happens, it feels like a logical inevitability. He's lived such a life that a dramatic capture is the only worthy consistent coda. Ramirez's gravitas provides the lifeblood of a grand labor of love by a director with so much ambition. The is no performance in 2010 that I've seen that comes close to Edgar Ramirez as Carlos. It's one of the best performances in all film.
There are way too many supporting characters to mention too many other performances specifically, but one standout is Ahmad Kaabour as Wadie Haddad, the leader of the revolutionary cell that gave Carlos his start. Though there are gritty, grounded moments, the film isn't shot in a documentary-like style. Instead, Assayas directs with a deliberate cinematic blueprint, and the script has heightened dialogue meant to romanticize the life of the man. Kaabour knows this, and as such, he gives a bombastic turn as a man with so much clout that every word he speaks evokes the terror of the audience as well as Carlos. Even though he's only in about 100 minutes of the film, Kaabour leaves a lasting impression, and that's certainly an accomplishment.
Carlos isn't perfect, which is not surprising considering its length and ambition. There are a few performances that don't work, and there are a few sex scenes in particular that feel gratuitous. Also, there's a sense that the film could have been edited down by about an hour or so without losing any of Assayas' epic scope or historical precision. Especially towards the end, there are perhaps a few too many scenes of Carlos looking strained and in pain with musical accompaniment that slows overall momentum which is admittedly enthralling without fail until part three. There's a two and a half hour version available On Demand, and I imagine that most who do see Carlos will ultimately check out that version. I can see how this material would work almost as well with an abbreviated running time. The only thing that I can't imagine replicated perfectly is Assayas' epic zeal to tell the tale of one man's extreme zealousness.
As such, I recommend that people check out Assayas' original vision. I think the film would stand up just as well if viewed in three separate sittings. Make room in your schedules for this one. It's bloody and disturbing, but so is terrorism itself. Assayas and Ramirez do not judge Carlos one way or the other. That's up to the viewer. Instead, they give us one of the great cinematic character studies that I've seen. Sure, making it to the end of Carlos in one sitting was an accomplishment, but the quality of the storytelling made it so much easier. I would have gladly stayed for another two hours if I had to.