Dir: Oliver Assayas, 2010. Starring: Edgar Ramirez, Alexander Scheer, Nora von Waldstatten. Foreign.
The last decades haven’t been that great for real-life political radicalism, but in the movies it’s been extraordinary: Baader Meinhof Complex, Munich, Che, the cartoonish Eight Miles High, and now, Olivier Assayas’s extraordinary bio Carlos (epic is an understatement). Not since the glory days of The Battle of Algiers, State Of Siege, and Z have political terror cells been so damn entertaining. Even more thanV for Vendetta, Carlos is one of the giddiest pro-terrorism flicks ever made. Originally made for French television, the five-hour-plus Carlos has been released in theaters at different lengths; but The Criterion Collection DVD includes the three episodes, at their original length, spread over three discs (with a fourth disc containing an excellent French documentary that helps to fill in the holes). Carlos is so dense with history and international period detail that seeing those above-mentioned films (which have a number of crossover characters and references in Carlos) definitely helps make the film easier to follow. But that’s not to say you have to be a history major to appreciate Carlos; it’s so riveting and Carlos, the character, is so fascinating that just committing to it proves amazingly rewarding.

In Episode One we meet Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, AKA Carlos (Edgar Ramirez), a young Venezuelan man who claims to be a Marxist committed to the anti-imperialism and pro-Palestinian causes (though not always pro Arab). We get no back story; the film opens with Carlos already established in political terrorist circles. He’s no modern day religious zealot; he seems to just be a fearless, hunky, suave playboy who is socially connected to every radical group from Europe to the Middle East. While seducing a woman he plays with his guns and has her orally pleasure a grenade while telling her “weapons are an extension of my body.” He smokes and drinks; at first the operatives above him treat him like a kid, but as his criminal star rises they begin to fear him. He’s a would-be assassin, with more than nine lives under his belt. But unlike The Jackal in The Day of the Jackal he’s not in it for the money; he’s clumsy and his plots are not as well planned out. Though Carlos and his comrades kill a lot of people in many countries they often get killed a lot themselves. Many women come and go throughout his life; some join his struggle, while others are just lovers. Episode One ends on a suspenseful note as Carlos and a makeshift little international militant group are preparing to attack OPEC headquarters in Vienna.

Episode Two picks up right there; it’s a bloodbath all in an effort to kill the Saudi oil minister. It becomes an international game of chicken as Carlos in his most “Che look” (beret, leather jacket, wavy hair) looks for a country where he can land his jet full of high profile diplomatic hostages. By the second half of Episode Two, losing his youthful swagger, Carlos is a hired gun—a capitalist himself— working for the highest bidder. He wants to be Che but now finds himself employed by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq; he turns down a Russian contract to kill Anwar Sadat of Egypt, but the cause is getting dimmer. Reforming the broken radical German revolutionary cell (Baader Meinhof Complex) in his own name, he takes on its leader Johannes Weinrich (Alexander Scheer) as a longtime partner in terrorism and arms dealing. By the end of Episode Two he now is sponsored by Syria and finds himself looking for new targets.

In Episode Three he becomes a mercenary for Kadafi in Libya and claims to be an “anti-super-powers Marxist," though money, not a cause, is what buys him. He marries his comrade, a German revolutionary named Magdalena Kopp (Nora von Waldstatten), after she gets out of jail and has a daughter with her. But no country will harbor them for very long. By the late ‘80s, as the Berlin Wall is torn down, he has now taken on the cover of a Muslim. But he is a soldier without a war, a relic of a more romantic revolutionary past. After Magdalena takes his daughter and leaves him he is just a fat drunk with testicular cancer trying to get liposuction and waiting for someone to kill him. Instead he is sold out by Sudan—kidnapped, drugged, and flown to Paris to stand trial. At the age of forty-eight he was given life in prison for killing a couple of French cops in the ‘70s.

Though it didn’t work in the late ‘70s for Battlestar Galactica, transplanting a television production onto the big screen has become an exciting source of quality films from Europe with Carlos, The Kingdom, Best of Youth and, more recently, The Trip. It helps when a major international director like Olivier Assayas is at the helm; though Carlos is his first masterpiece, what I’ve seen of his work in the past is always of interest, with Irma Vep being his most memorable outing before Carlos. Nothing can prepare one for the intricate storytelling and ambitious undertaking that is Carlos. The amount of locations shot in, characters employed, and even languages spoken on screen have to be damn near record-setting. The complexity of the story did require me to use the timeline that was featured in the supplemental book. From that I also realized that Assayas could have made an even longer film, as so much from Carlos’s life didn’t make the screen. And that may be part of the genius here—what was chosen and what wasn’t—often only fragments of moments are given, but the pieces do come together.

Late in the story Carlos teaches a class, describing to students the global struggle; he mentions being able to pick up dialects is part of his job. For actor Edgar Ramirez, it’s part of his job, too. Besides the massive weight gain to play the older Carlos, he must speak in at least eight different languages, and it’s a stunning performance. The charm, intelligence, and sex appeal that Ramirez brings to the role may make Carlos, the man, more likable than he deserves to be. This is a guy that deserves to have a major acting career.

Carlos is the Lawrence of Arabia of international terrorist movies. At its core it’s simple, repeating the New Order riff from “Dreams Never End” over and over, creating both tension and a sense of period fun. It may help if a viewer understands the irony that, to Carlos and his friends, the young Palestinian Yasser Arafat wasn’t radical enough  (when he was dangled an olive branch, for a peace proposal), but a mildly attentive watcher can put the pieces together (with help from the Criterion supplements). It can be taken as a history lesson or another cool ‘70s political thriller and either way it’s completely satisfying.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Dec 7, 2011 5:42pm
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