An epic project depicting the career of an international terrorist, Carlos is one of the most riveting films in recent memory.
Director Olivier Assayas has brilliantly recreated the life and times of the Venezualan revolutionary (Eduardo Ramierez), born Ilich Ramirez Sanchez and later nicknamed ‘Carlos the Jackal’, to paint a fascinating portrait of a historical figure.
It charts his early years as a violent revolutionary in Europe as he proves his worth to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP); missions for states such as Iraq, Libya and East Germany; an infamous kidnapping of OPEC oil ministers in Vienna in 1975 and his gradual decline as he sought refuge in Eastern Europe, Syria and Sudan as he struggled to cope with the end of the Cold War before finally being caught by French agents in 1994, where he currently resides in jail under a life sentence.
An ambitious French TV project, it is getting two kinds of theatrical release: a three part five and a half hour cut and a shortened 165 minute version.
It will then get released on DVD and Blu-ray soon after along with a variety of on demand options in several countries.
Despite its origins, it was shot on 35 mm film and to all intents and purposely feels like a sprawling historical epic. Assayas doesn’t just recreate the period, he plunges us head first in to the era with an exhaustive attention to detail.
The production design is especially outstanding, with costumes, locations and sets all used to present the period with remarkable authenticity.
At the centre of all this is a captivating central performance from Ramierez, who not only bears an eerie resemblance to Carlos, but anchors the film as it criss-crosses through many years and locations: he captures the vanity, obsession and physique of the man rarely in a portrayal that rarely hits a wrong note.
The supporting performances are also strong with stand out turns from Juana Acosta (as an early lover); Alexander Scheer (playing his longest serving colleague) and Nora von Waldstätten (as his increasingly beleaguered wife).
Discerning viewers should catch the full version as the editing gives sequences a fluid sense of movement and pace which belies its long running time. Although the third part sags a little compared to the first two, it moves with an incredible fluency and pace which makes many 90 minute films seem ponderous by comparison.
Some memorable set pieces include his first mission, a botched airport attack, a betrayal, an extended kidnap sequence and the final entrapment of Carlos as the net gradually closes in.
Based on extensive research, with the filmmakers allowing for an interpretation of some events, the attention to detail reaps rich dividends because it never feels burdened by obvious movie tropes.
Many sequences are intercut with news footage from the time, which provide a counterpoint to the perspective of Carlos and his inner circle, as well as rooting us in the historical record.
The handheld cameras and sound design all helps give the action an added urgency which is tingling throughout, and neatly conveys the anxieties of a life on the run.
Also interesting is the widescreen lensing by Yorick Le Saux and Denis Lenoir: some sequences have an epic feel which is contrasted with others that are more much claustrophobic and intimate. Throughout the visuals are handled with a dynamism and skill rare in modern cinema.
In the last decade the gap between television and cinema has narrowed. Not only have higher end shows become more like films, but cinema has struggled to compete with the range and narrative scope offered by series like The Wire and Mad Men.
Carlos represents an interesting hybrid: it screened at Cannes just before premiering on Canal+ in France but in many countries will be seen as three part film project.
It is very hard to imagine a US or UK broadcaster (even HBO or BBC) making a project as ambitious as this: not only is the protagonist a revolutionary terrorist, but it makes no concessions to being obviously ‘prestigious’ or uplifting, in the conventional sense.
But the lift comes from the audacious way in which Assayas and his creative team have relentlessly focused on a character who in some ways, reflects the creeping ambiguities and dangers of modern terrorism.
Although a period piece, Carlos asks awkward questions about the nature of terrorists and does so by featuring an enigmatic central figure: What made a Venezuelan Marxist so passionate about the Palestinian cause? How much of his motivation was vanity over ideology? Is terrorism at its core, a form of narcissism? In what way do nation states use terrorists for their own ends?
These are never fully answered but teased out for audiences to form their own perspective. A running theme seems to be that Carlos was both a practical tool used by various governments complicit in his activities (such as Iraq, Libya) but also a useful myth whose frequently botched acts were more about perception than reality.
This is contrasted with his own motivations, which often seems to be an egotistical individualism at odds with his professed solidarity to the global Marxist struggle.
As the film draws to a close and Carlos becomes like a faded rock star shunned from countries once sympathetic to him and his mystery actually deepens as the enigma fades.
Had he merely stopped serving a purpose after the Cold War ended? Or was it merely a matter of time running out and his crimes catching up with him? Was Carlos an individual who hijacked causes for his own egotistical ends?
The questions are tantalising and although after five and a half hours the audience might be expecting some answers, the film is satisfying precisely because it avoids lazy conclusions, almost reflecting the mysteries and myths that grew around the man himself.
The use of post-punk and new wave songs (especially Wire’s anthem Dot-Dash) provide bursts of energy throughout, whilst the lack of a conventional score infuses others with a raw sense of immediacy and tension.
A mammoth logistical undertaking compressing over thirty years of history into around 330 minutes, Carlos is also an absorbing portrait of a mythological figure, who seems to embody the unsettling mysteries and reality of terrorism.
More than just an accomplished historical biopic, it is also an essential drama about the times in which we live.
Carlos screened at the LFF on Saturday and Olivier Assayas gives a screen talk on Saturday 24th October
** The extended and abridged versions will both be released at UK cinemas on Friday 22nd October **