Carlos (2010) dir. Olivier Assayas
Starring: Édgar Ramírez, Alexander Scheer, Alejandro Arroyo
By Alan Bacchus
It’s most certainly an exercise in cinema attrition, but also one of the event films of the year and thus something I could not miss out on – that is, the five and half hour cut of Carlos, the epic biopic about the famed international terrorist Carlos the Jackal. It made a big splash at Cannes, Venice and has been showing in the glorious new Bell Lightbox theatre here in Toronto.
Including the two intermissions the whole event actually equals six hours, almost a working day of movie watching. For the most part it’s an impressive achievement for Assayas, who has crafted one long procedural thriller which spans 20 years, and a number of different countries across the globe.
Split into three parts, which at one hour and 45mins each, constitutes 3 separate films. Unlike Steven Soderbergh's Che though, it’s impossible to watch one part without seeing the other. These narrative breaks serve only allow us to get up and pee, or grab more popcorn.
Part One introduces Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (aka Carlos, played with maximum style by Edgar Ramirez), an idealistic Venezuelan political student who desires to contribute to the global action against the ills of capitalist imperialism, namely American influence in the Middle East. We see him connect with international terrorist backer, Wadie Haddad and the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine). Assayas dramatizes these early activities with great speed, rushing through assassination attempts, parcel bombings and other smaller tasks with a whip fast montage effect.
The second part, after Carlos completes his training in Beirut, Assayas slows down the timeline to show the step by step procedural details of the notorious Vienna OPEC Raid in 1973 where Carlos led a six person team into OPEC headquarters and taking over 60 hostages on a ride from Austria to Algeria to Libya and Yemen. After zipping through years of Carlos’ early activities, virtually the entire second chapter takes place in the two days of this hijack. Even within this shrunken timeline, Assayas makes every movement, action, and decision a nail biting affair, ringing out genre-style suspense and thrills as good as any Hollywood crackerjack.
Part three shows the last 15 years of Carlo’s career, the downfall which started from the fallout of the OPEC event to his last days as a free man in the 90’s in Africa. Arguably after reaching the high at the midpoint of Part Two, the film peters out from the excessive running time. The final hour could have been compressed into 20mins, and it’s quite possible the 2 hour, 45mins cut might just do that. But the domestic vs. political life of Carlos which part three broadens tries to humanize Carlos as a man being unable to commit to anything, a life of ideals but no substantial foundation of heroism. Assayas is partly successful in conveying this, but his consistent detachment renders the finale anti-climactic.
The shear length of this endeavour, despite the lulls, is bravura filmmaking, but I couldn’t help but question, why this film was made, and why it was made the way it was. The mere fact so much time has been devoted to the life and actions of a terrorist, without really having his character called to task for his actions, arguably glorifies his story. It’s an elephant in the room, which is never really addressed. While Assayas has every right to make a story from the point of view of a terrorist, he also has an obligation to judge his actions. And so, by the end of this five and half hours, we’re left with only a vague opinion of the man and his politics.
To compare, I wonder how we would feel if a similar film would have been about Osama Bin Laden, a five hour procedural showing his actions which led to the 9/11 attack and his subsequent retreat into the caves of Afghanistan or Pakistan, or wherever the hell he is. But Bin Laden’s film couldn’t be made the same.
A sublayer theme which exists, but only directly referenced once or twice, is the celebrity which attracted Carlos. In the 70’s, however disturbing, in the Western world, there was a factor of 'cool' in Carlos, to go along with the anti-capitalist movement, of which there was many enigmatic organizations which were looked upon as justified (the Baader Meinhof Complex presents a similar story of terrorists as heroes). And so, there's a strong contradiction in the glorification of Carlos, a man who terrorizes and murders in cold blood, but someone who in Western pop culture comes off as cool and iconic.
These contradictions and complexities when placed into a razor sharp epic thriller elevates Carlos to the high bar of commercial art.