Director : Olivier Assayas
Screenplay : Olivier Assayas, Dan Franck (based on an original idea by Daniel Leconte )
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 2010
Stars : Édgar Ramírez (Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, aka Carlos), Alexander Scheer (Johannes Weinrich), Alejandro Arroyo (Dr. Valentín Hernández), Fadi Abi Samra (Michel Moukharbel), Ahmad Kaabour (Wadie Haddad), Talal El-Jordi (Kamal al-Issawi “Ali”), Juana Acosta (Amie de Carlos), Nora von Waldstätten (Magdalena Kopp), Christoph Bach (Hans-Joachim Klein “Angie”), Rodney El Haddad (Anis Naccache “Khalid”), Julia Hummer (Gabriele Kröcher-Tiedemann “Nada”), Antoine Balabane (Général al-Khouly), Rami Farah (Joseph), Aljoscha Stadelmann (Wilfred Böse “Boni”), Zeid Hamdan (Youssef), Fadi Yanni Turk (Colonel Haïtham Saïd), Katharina Schüttler (Brigitte Kuhlmann), Badih Abou Chakra (Cheikh Yamani)
At the beginning of each episode of Olivier Assayas’s impressive three-part telefilm Carlos, a black title screen gives us seemingly contradictory information: first, that the film we are about to watch is the production of intense historical and journalistic research, and second that we should view it as fiction. Of course, this dialectic between verifiable historical fact and the fictionalizing that is necessary to create a familiar narrative shape is central to all biopics and other historical films, and it is testament to Assayas’s artistic courage and confidence that he uses it to frame a potentially controversial film like Carlos, thus bringing to the surface the very issue that most filmmakers hope the audience will ignore.
Carlos was produced simultaneously for European television (where it aired as a five-and-a-half-hour mini-series) and international cinema (where it played in both its full version and in an edited three-hour version), which gives Assayas a large canvas on which to paint his portrait of Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, a Venezuelan-born Marxist radical who took the nom de guerre “Carlos” when he joined the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in 1970 and embarked on what would become a three-decade career as an international terrorist and gun-running mercenary. The film’s triumph is that it is a narratively sprawling, yet utterly engaging film in the way it conveys the turmoil of recent political history, the intricacies of state-sponsored terrorism, and the convoluted incestuousness of competing political factions without sacrificing the emotionally charged intrigue of interpersonal dynamics.
Played by Venezuelan actor Édgar Ramírez in a tour-de-force performance, Carlos is an enigmatic and troubling protagonist, a committed leftwing idealist who sees himself primarily as a “soldier” whose violence is both the ultimate manifestation of his political commitment and evidence of his rampant ego and fundamental monstrosity. It is, in other words, not a particularly flattering portrait even though it allows us to recognize the kernels of truth in Carlos’s ideological resistance to western imperialism and capitalist domination while also regarding his actions as heinous and ultimately counterproductive to real political change.
The three parts of the film correspond roughly with three major segments in Carlos’s adult life. The first part depicts the early years of his behind-the-scenes militant political engagement and terroristic activities, the turning point of which comes when he kills two French police investigators and Michel Moukharbel (Fadi Abi Samra), a PFLP organizer who caved under interrogation and named him to police, thus assuring Carlos’s placement on the international map. The second part concerns itself primarily with Carlos leading an audacious PFLP raid on the OPEC headquarters in Vienna, which led to several deaths and Carlos being expelled from the PFLP due to his not following the explicit orders of the group’s leader, Waddie Hadad (Ahmad Kaabour). Thus estranged from the group with which he had spent five years, Carlos goes rogue, taking money from different governments and militaries in both the Middle East and Eastern Europe to set up terrorist cells to fight for various leftwing causes. The third part of the film follows Carlos’s decline from grand mythical figure to fading gun-for-hire who is essentially left without a country after the Iron Curtain fell at the end of the 1980s and the previously hardline Middle Eastern countries like Syria softened their antagonism toward the West.
Assayas deftly handles the historical and political complexities that form the backdrop to Carlos’s life without letting the film turn into a staid history lesson; he keeps the story moving like a well-tuned thriller with jackknife precision, alternating between fluid camera moves that hold the weight of history and jittery handheld work that convey its chaos, violence, and uncertainty. It is indicative of Assayas’s dexterity as a filmmaker that his previous film, Summer Hours (2008), was a contemplative family drama that I described as “unfold[ing] slowly and gently, drawing us into the lives of its characters, none of whom are heroic or terrible or even all that unique.” Carlos is very much that film’s opposite, drawing us quickly and powerfully into the violent world of its singular protagonist, whose constant presence in the media in the 1970s turned him into a larger-than-life figure that baffled authorities and terrified much of Europe.
Assayas and Ramírez, who is on-screen in virtually every scene in the film, have a clear-eyed view of Carlos and his contradictions. A self-described soldier, he espouse his political convictions with great certainty and authority, thus making it obvious why he was such a compelling figure to both those with whom he worked and those who only read about him in the newspaper and saw the video images of his carnage. Yet, Assayas and Ramírez do not portray him as a martyr or misunderstood hero. In fact, they show that Carlos was a monster, especially in his personal life. We see this most clearly in his chauvinist treatment of women, including his second wife, Magdalena Kopp (Nora von Waldstätten), a would-be revolutionary who is drawn to Carlos’s politics but is ultimately repulsed by his selfishness, egotism, and brutality, not to mention his blatant hypocrisy (anyone who claims to stand up for the oppressed and yet takes advantage of prostitutes cannot be anything but a hypocrite). In fact, if there is a cumulative statement to be made about Carlos, it is that his narcissism was the true driving force in his life and his politics were just an offshoot of his egotism, a convenient and effective vehicle to ride into the history books.
|Carlos Criterion Collection Blu-Ray|
|Carlos is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.|
|Audio||Dolby Digital 5.1 surround|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||September 27, 2011|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Given that it was originally produced for television, I watched Carlos under the assumption that it had been shot on high-definition video, so I was surprised to see in the liner notes that it had, in fact, been shot entirely on film and that Criterion’s new 1080p high-definition transfer was made from the 35mm two-perf negative. The image looks smoother and more digital than a lot of Criterion’s film transfers, although this is surely the intended look of the film since it is director-approved. The image is sound in terms of presentation and clarity, with no digital artifacting or overt signs of image enhancement. The fact that the entire five-and-a-half hour film is contained on a single dual-layer Blu-Ray might be cause for concern on paper, but I didn’t notice any detrimental effects (however, I do wish they had included an additional disc with the three-hour theatrical cut, if only for comparative purposes). Colors are bright and strong, and detail is excellent, even in the darker sequences. The multi-lingual Dolby Digital 5.1-channel soundtrack (characters speak French, German, English, Arabic, Russian, Hungarian, and probably several other languages) is fully digital and sounds quite good throughout, with excellent clarity and nice separation that effortlessly draws you into the action.|
|Criterion has produced an excellent and exhausting set of supplements to accompany Carlos and contextualize this impressive film cinematically and historically. Included on the second disc of this two-disc set are substantial video interviews with director Olivier Assayas (43 min.), actor Édgar Ramírez (23 min.), and cinematographer Denis Lenoir (13 min.), who also contributes selected-scene commentary throughout the film. We also get a 20-minute making-of featurette about the OPEC raid scene and the original theatrical trailer. From the archives Criterion has pulled out Carlos: Terrorist Without Borders, an hour-long French documentary from 1997 about Carlos’s life; an interview from 1995 with Carlos associate Hans-Joachim Klein (aka “Angie”) conducted by Jean-Marcel Bougreau and Daniel Leconte (who produced Carlos); and Maison de France, another feature-length documentary, this one about the 1983 bombing of the Maison de France in West Berlin, an event that is not mentioned in the film. The thick insert booklet is particularly useful as, in addition to insightful essays by critics Colin MacCabe and Greil Marcus, it includes a detailed timeline of Carlos’s life and biographies of selected figures portrayed in the film, written by Carlos’s historical adviser Stephen Smith.|
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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