Judge Clark Douglas feels this film deserves an epic, lengthy, three-part review. However, he's lazy.
The man who hijacked the world.
"For me, the only struggle that matters is the oppressed against the imperialists."
Facts of the Case
Over the course of two decades, we follow Venezuelan terrorist Ilyich Ramirez Sanchez (Edgar Ramirez, Domino)—aka "Carlos the Jackal"—as he rises from earnest young soldier to ambitious revolutionary leader to international celebrity to desperate fugitive. What motivated "Carlos" to engage in violence, and how was he able to escape the grasp of the law and his enemies for so many years?
The fascinating thing about Olivier Assayas' portrait of Carlos the Jackal is that Carlos seems to be a prestigious revolutionary leader without any significant interest in the actual revolutions he involves himself in. Sure, Carlos tells his assorted followers and comrades over the years about the importance of "fighting for the cause" (whatever that cause may be), but he often addresses the subject in a weary, matter-of-fact manner completely liberated of personal feeling. Carlos' true passions are for the actual methods he uses to carry out his revolutions; he's in love with the rush of successfully carrying out a mission. At various points in his life, he does work on behalf of Palestine, Russia, Syria and Iraq. There are conflicting ideologies at work in these places, but an appreciation for fascism seems to be a running theme.
Carlos was indeed a violent man, though the film doesn't present him as a man with a lust for violence. Carlos loves being in power and achieving his goals; the fact that violence better enables him to do those things is almost a side note. There is an unnerving lack of human compassion in Carlos, something that even makes some of his associates a little nervous. He only worries about hurting innocent people if he feels it will tarnish his image as a "noble terrorist," and almost never concerns himself with something so trivial as someone's feelings (at one point, he sleeps with the lover of a key member of his organization: "I hope this won't damage your devotion to the cause," Carlos says casually). There are many women in his life, all of whom he treats rather condescendingly. However, he has a steely magnetism that somehow allows them tolerate this far longer than they ought to.
Edgar Ramirez is terrific in the title role, commanding our attention even as he remains a deeply puzzling figure. Ramirez pulls off nearly every surface-level feat of "acting" imaginable, changing his appearance (goatees, mustaches, beards, sideburns and glasses come and go with alarming speed), adding and dropping weight like Christian Bale in a career highlight reel and speaking numerous languages with ease (I'm pretty sure this is the first film I've seen that is in English, French, Arabic, German, Spanish, Hungarian, Japanese and Russian). However, through all of the verbal and physical shifts, he remains relentlessly himself; plotting and ordering in that same assured, steady, confident tone.
Many viewers may be inclined to think about Che Guevera a great deal while watching Carlos, not only because their lives are so similar but because the film itself offers constant reminders. Many of Carlos' friends and associates keep Che posters in their rooms, while a couple of characters even go so far as to make direct comparisons between the two. Those who have seen Steven Soderbergh's Che will undoubtedly have that similarly lengthy portrait of a controversial militant in the back of their minds while watching Carlos, but this film succeeds where that one fell short. Che is a fascinating film to analyze and discuss (Soderbergh's ambitious method of technical storytelling is unquestionably impressive), but hard to actually sit through. Alternately, Carlos is rarely less than riveting over the course of its 339-minute running time.
That's partially due to the spellbinding Ramirez performance, but most of the credit goes to Assayas. The director finds many ways to make the material involving, but I want to highlight one in particular: the way he ends each scene. I can't recall another film that so consistently finds unexpected, fascinating ways to finish dramatic moments. Whether it's cutting directly from the build-up to a violent moment to a news report on the aftermath, highlighting a piece of minutiae simply by making it the last thing we see in a particular scene or concluding on a pitch-perfect comic beat, Assayas consistently rewards viewer attentiveness and prevents Carlos from ever hitting autopilot. He proves equally adept at suspense-driven set pieces (such as the hour-long portrait of the OPEC raid and its aftermath) and small character moments, whirring through this man's life with an effective mixture of documentary-style precision and dramatic fireworks.
Carlos strolls onto Blu-ray sporting a very impressive 1080p/2.35:1 transfer. It's important to note that the film intentionally adjusts its visual style in subtle ways as the film progresses. It's not as blatant or fascinating as Che's adoption of this tactic (arguably that film's greatest virtue), but nonetheless quite interesting to observe. The level of detail varies (some shots are quite soft while others are crystal-clear), color saturation changes a good deal, noise levels come and go, etc. The filmmakers' original intentions have been well-preserved, and this is a rather good-looking film more often than not. Audio is quite strong throughout, as the louder sequences pack an impressive punch. Much of the film is dominated by dialogue, which is clean and clear. Music certainly isn't omnipresent, but it makes a strong impression on the occasions when it kicks in.
This two-disc set contains a generous supplemental package. The film is presented in three parts, the first two of which are located on Disc One. That disc also contains some brief scene-specific commentary from cinematographer Denis Lenoir and a 21-minute featurette on "Shooting the OPEC sequence." Disc Two houses the bulk of the extras, including two lengthy older documentaries on Carlos ("Maison de France" and "Carlos: Terrorist Without Borders"), video interviews with Assayas (43 minutes), Edgar Ramirez (20 minutes) and Lenoir (14 minutes), an archival interview with German militant Hans Joachim-Klein (39 minutes), a theatrical trailer and a booklet featuring essays by Greil Marcus and Colin MacCabe.
Carlos is a sprawling biopic which actually manages to live up to its lofty ambitions. Don't let the enormous running time deter you; once Carlos hooks you it doesn't let go. Criterion's lavish Blu-ray release is excellent.
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