Plot: What’s it about?
Carlos is a challenging film. Any film that would set out to make audacious sprawling five and a half hour epic is a courageous film. To make that film’s subject matter one of the most notorious terrorists of the second half of the twentieth century, is almost insane. As a director you run the risk of glorifying a heinous and violent criminal and his actions. Therefore, figuring out how to control each scene is of paramount importance. As a writer you face another issue, how to condense down twenty years in the life of a terrorist who criss-crossed from Paris, to Damascus, to East Germany, and Beirut, while explaining the origins of his criminal organization. The amount of research to perform this task would be daunting for any writer. Olivier Assayas proved he was capable of juggling all of these issues and making one of the most heart breaking and educational, beautifully shot films imaginable.
Carlos tells the story of Ilych Ramirez Sanchez- also known as Carlos the Jackal- a radical leftist terrorist who operated from the late sixties into the late eighties an international terrorist organization. Carlos began his career fighting as a freedom fighter in Jordan and then worked in Paris under the control of the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.) He orchestrated attacks on what he viewed as the capitalist Zionist imperialists. He orchestrated attacks on prominent Jews, Israeli airlines, and orchestrated one of the most audacious terrorist activities of the seventies when he held the delegates of the OPEC hostage. He also was a gun runner and led an organization of terrorists throughout Europe during the Cold War, receiving asylum in Syria and Budapest.
The reason the film is a success has a lot to do with Assayas. The camera is fluid and controlled, allowing the violence to happen in a natural, frightening, fast paced realism. Assayas plays up the idea that Carlos was not a “freedom fighter” fighting for ideals, but a narcissistic megalomaniac bent on serving his own image and pocket book. The violence is so shocking and realistic that each detonated explosion or gun shot has the effect of making the viewer cringe. The effect is unnerving and sure to steer many viewers away from the project. On top of that, the length of the film serves to actually allow all of the information necessary to understand his story to come across the screen fluidly. Once the viewer has made it past the first hour and fifteen minutes, there is no turning back until the end. I applaud Assayas for staying true to his vision and not making cuts to make the film flow more quickly.
Another reason the film works is how Assayas chose to show the sexuality of the character. This film contains graphic male nudity, but it is necessary for the film to show the narcissistic nature of Carlos. A good example would be a scene early in the film where Carlos walks naked to a mirror and then walks to a window and stands naked for any passerby to see. As much as I can do without male nudity, it served a purpose here.
The film relies heavily on a cast of great character actors, but none more so than Edgar Ramirez. Edgar plays Carlos with the required amount of sinister intelligence and lack of empathy. In real life, Edgar was a Venezuelan who grew up all over Europe. This multilingualism makes him incredibly convincing in a role that required speaking of English, French, German, Arabic, and Russian. I can’t speak highly enough of this performance. He manages to be incredibly charismatic, while unforgivably despicable and cruel. This is the definition of tour de force acting.
The film also serves as a very important time capsule to the politics of the Cold War era and the ripple effects of terrorism and geopolitics of the time still felt today. Anyone interested in how we got to the political climate we are engulfed in now can learn much from Carlos.
At the end of the day, Carlos is incredibly difficult subject matter in the hands of a master director and actor. The film is beautifully shot and realized and earns my very highest recommendation. It js not an easy film to handle, but for those willing, there is much to learn from watching it.
Video: How’s it look?
Criterion did an extremely capable job on the brand new digital transfer of the film. With a ratio of 2.35:1 and MPEG-4 AVC encode, depth and clarity are excellent, with the shadows and grain of the film fully present. Criterion have done an excellent job of cleaning up dirt and scratches with a very pleasing final product. This film is probably one of the best looking films that Criterion has ever released, and the transfer is fantastic. The incredible job of recreating all of these time periods and locations is going to blow your mind, in beautiful high definition. Perfect.
Audio: How’s it sound?
This is a very well done 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Carlos is an incredibly diverse film in terms of arrangements musically. There is punk, new wave, Arabic dance music, and live Spanish protest music. All of it works. On top of that, surrounds are used incredibly effectively, most notably during the OPEC raid and the airport attack at Orly. This is a damn near perfect transfer and I have no problems with it whatsoever.
Supplements: What are the extras?
- Trailer – the original U.S. trailer for Carlos. In Spanish and English, with optional English subtitles where necessary. (3 min, 1080p).
- Shooting of the OPEC Sequence – a brief supplement showing good behind the scenes footage of how they worked through the OPEC raid. It was interesting to watch how they worked together to create the sequence, between control and improvisation. In French and English, with optional English subtitles and imposed French subtitles where necessary. (21 min, 1080i).
- Selected-scene Commentary – cinematographer Denis Lenoir comments on six scenes from Carlos. I really liked this feature, even though it was pretty brief. In English, not subtitled. (9 min, 1080p).
- Olivier Assayas – this is an incredibly robust and informative interview with the film director. He explains the difficulties faced in adapting such rough material and how they approached certain elements of the film. This feature is fantastic. The video interview was shot exclusively for Criterion in Paris in April 2011. In English, not subtitled. (43 min, 1080p).
- Edgar Ramirez – a solid interview with the actor as he discusses how he approached the character of Carlos. The video interview was shot exclusively for Criterion in Tenerife, Spain, in June 2011. In English, not subtitled. (20 min, 1080p).
- Denis Lenoir – The second best interview on the disk has one of the two cinematographers discuss the filming. Really enjoyable. The video interview was shot exclusively for Criteiron in April 2011. In English, not subtitled. (14 min, 1080p).
- Carlos: Terrorist Without Borders – this fascinating documentary first aired in France in 1997, as part of the television series Les brulures de l’histoire. This feature examines Carlos’s rise to power as a terrorist and the damage he inflicted. This was good to see for comparison with the depiction in the film. In French, with optional English subtitles. (59 min, 1080i).
- Hans-Joachim Klein – a depressing interview with the former terrorist and partner of Carlos. Very interesting and goes a long way towards explaining how people wind up involved with cult of personality figures like Carlos and the political climate of that time. In German, with optional English subtitles. (39 min, 1080i).
- Maison de France – a documentary film about the 1983 bombing of the Maison de France in West Berlin. It’s hard to say that I enjoyed this documentary as the subject matter was so sad. This film shows the weight carried by the survivors of terrorist activities and those who lose loved ones. In German and French, with optional English subtitles. (89 min, 1080i).
- Booklet – an illustrated booklet featuring essays by critics Colin MacCabe and Greil Marcus.
The Bottom Line
Carlos rewards viewers for their patience with an incredibly interesting story of an incredibly evil human being. There is so much to enjoy here with great cinematography and acting and a story that helps to understand how we arrived in our new time period of terrorism and geopolitical intrigue. This is not an easy film, and it never shies away from sexuality or intense bouts of violence that hurt the viewer to see happen. Criterion have gone above and beyond by providing two full length documentaries and hours of interviews with the director, star, an cinematographer. They have also included a full length interview with terrorist Han Joachim Klein, one of Carlos’ associates and a central character in the film. I can do nothing less than give this film and this release a perfect score.