Film: Carlos ***
Release Date: 1st November 2010
Running time: 338 mins
Director: Olivier Assavas
Starring: Juana Acosta, Edgar Ramirez, Alexander Scheer, Alejandro Arroyo, Ahmad Kaabour
Carlos, real name Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, was so central in the history of international terrorism during the seventies and eighties he became a minor celebrity – people feared and admired him in equal measure. His imposing personality enabled him to form his own organisation, one that famously raided the annual meeting of Opec Oil Ministers in 1975. With extensive cuts for its theatrical release, this version is the original three-episode television series, tracing 20 years in the life of a notorious terrorist.
Ilich had grown tired of political demonstrations that, in his mind, did very little and didn’t mean a thing. Using more brutal methods to get his message across, it isn’t long before he changes his name to Carlos, an intimidating figure of the extreme left and an opportunistic mercenary in the pay of powerful Middle Eastern secret services.
After a few successful and some botched operations, Carlos ultimately fails in an attempt to take hostage Oil ministers attending the annual meeting of Opec, angering his employers who feel that he has betrayed them by taking money for freedom and not completing the mission.
Dumped for the next assault, Carlos soon realises he is no longer part of the group, but decides now is the time to set up his own organisation. Based in East Berlin, his romantic interests hinder his group’s progress and creates conflict that could alter a certain comrade’s commitment to the revolution.
Inevitably, Carlos struggles to find the necessary support in order to keep his organisation going – colleagues are arrested and imprisoned, his partner is unable to raise their child by herself in such futile circumstances, his body is failing to cope with the physical demands his chosen path brings, and places to hide are becoming increasingly hard to find…
About two thirds of the way into Olivier Assavas’s biopic Carlos its intriguing plot veers dangerously close to running out of steam. Which is a bit of a nightmare seeing as we still have one episode to go – it’s longest, almost hitting the two-hour mark. Fortunately, after a meandering finale to end part two, the final instalment, and the director, gets back on track by juicing up the love triangle, promising conflict by the bucket load. Sadly, because the film is based on real events, interesting plot twists and the fascinating sub-plot are never explored, summing up why Carlos will never be fully appreciated – it’s just far too real and ultimately hard work.
Therefore, the resulting film is a strange beast. For instance, Assavas handles the visual aspect of the film with style, complimented by the performances – Acosta is astonishing, who gives his all to the role of Carlos, to the point where a weight gain during his spell in hiding adds simple but brilliant realism – there’s no question whatsoever about the state of his mind: he’s an arrogant man who wants to be remembered, maybe even admired, taking ludicrous measures to preserve his reputation.
The seamless fast-paced editing, mixed with a clever blending of black and white newsreels and footage, propels the action, of which there is plenty, into another realm altogether – so much so, the quieter moments are dull in comparison, even if they are seemingly required. A sparse punk soundtrack adds a bit of extra rebellion to proceedings, but it’s the simple use of gunfire that really gets the adrenalin pumping, especially during those frenetic hostage-taking scenes.
Jumping from country to country, from language to language, most of the dialogue is spoken in English, which certainly takes the pressure off this five-hour plus marathon. There’s humour here too, whether it be Acosta’s neat one-liners, or the often-hilarious mistakes his comrades make (blowing up the wrong plane, twice, for instance), made the more amusing because it actually happened. Even better still, in the funniest moment, there’s always someone else who will take the credit for your mistakes.
The major problem with tracing twenty years of someone’s life is that, no matter how long the film is, it will still somehow feel rushed. Assavas doesn’t seem to have a problem with skipping a year or two when he sees fit, which ultimately leaves the viewer feeling a little bit lost and left out – surely something must’ve happened during such a length of time, and if not, why choose some scenes, for arguments sake the entire last hour, in which nothing much happens apart from running from one hiding place to another, in place of others that would show Carlos in a more fearsome light. At times he does seem all too likeable, which is arguably why he was seen as such a celebrity, but also why the end result is somewhat disappointing.
Having said that, the opening three-and-a-bit hours hurtle by, with the first half of episode two a magnificent lesson in suspense and high-octane action. But once again, this brings its problems. History tells us that Carlos’s raid on the annual meeting of Opec Oil Ministers was his finest achievement, so what happens after that? Well, he ends up teaching, he struggles to raise a child, he decides to have liposuction and his testicles are seriously giving him grief. Hardly worth another two hours, right? Maybe not…
Told in chronological order and with shifting levels of reality and fiction, the heart of Carlos is Juana Acosta’s outstanding performance, but the film is let down by the realities that finally befall the main man – simply, in this day and age, they just aren’t that interesting.