Carlos Review

In cinemas now, on disc on 1 November, this epic biopic of the notorious political terrorist is one of the films of the year.

Carlos (played by Edgar Ramirez) was born Ilich Ramirez Sanchez in Venezuela, and adopted his nom de guerre when he joined the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). (The nickname “The Jackal” is never heard on screen.). Olivier Assayas’s film covers two decades, during which he was one of the most notorious political terrorists. He was best known for the 1975 raid on OPEC’s headquarters in Vienna, which killed three people. In 1994 he was arrested and extradited to France, where is now serving life imprisonment.

He is, for many, like Che Guevara before him, a single image, a face on a poster. You know the one: the round face and the sunglasses. A year after Carlos’s arrest, Black Grape used it for the cover of their album It’s Great When You’re Straight…Yeah. Whatever your political leanings, and although you may despise his crimes, you cannot deny that he was a charismatic figure. In his film, Assayas shows him nude twice: once early on, as a trim, fit man in his twenties. This contrasts with paunchy middle age, a man so vain that he would delay an operation on a painful testicular condition so that he could have liposuction to reduce his love handles.

Carlos is not the first film to deal with armed revolutionary politics, and political terrorism, that was at its height in the Seventies and Eighties. In recent years we’ve had the German-made The Baader Meinhof Complex and Steven Soderbergh’s two-part, four-hour Che. In a related vein are criminal biopics such as the two-part four-hour Fremch film Mesrine. Carlos’s opening scene, in which a Black September leader is assassinated by Mossad using a car bomb, overlaps with the subject matter of Steven Spielberg’s Munich.

It’s striking though how incompetent terrorist operations were, notably an early scene where a man with a rocket launcher misses the plane he was aiming at and hits another one, and another terrorist group claims the attack. At another point, the plane Carlos orders is incapable of reaching the intended destination – it’s simply too far. Vanity is not Carlos’s only shortcoming: there’s also pride, and also the kind of sexism that’s the blind spot of many Sixties freethinkers. His comrade “Angie” (Hans-Joachim Klein, played by Christoph Bach) leaves the movement because its anti-Zionism has crossed the line into anti-Semitism.

Carlos was made for French television, in a three part version totalling five and a half hours, with a cut-down “Movie” version of two and a quarter. But Carlos is entirely cinematic. A little knowledge of the times and politics would be useful, but Assayas and his co-writer Dan Franck keep the story clear. There are captions identifying key dates and persons to help you out. Assayas shoots the film documentary style (cinematography is the joint work of Denis Lenoir and Yorick Le Saux), and keeps up a compelling pace. The action scenes have a visceral impact. I’ve seen ninety-minute films that seem longer than this. Shooting in Scope in documentary style – there’s quite a lot of handheld camerawork, though not so much as to make you seasick – Assayas turns the story into an epic, with a large cast list, taking place over two decades. The film may be French-made, but it’s a very polyglot film: For much of the film, English is used by the characters as a lingua franca, but there are significant stretches of dialogue in German, Spanish, French and Arabic, with briefer scenes in Japanese, Hungarian, Dutch, Italian and Russian.

Part One begins with Ilich gaining his reputation as a revolutionary, culminating in the shoot out in Paris for which he was eventually convicted. Most of Part Two is concerned with the raid on the OPEC headquarters in Vienna in 1975. Part Three shows Carlos, at first supported by the Syrian government, based in different parts of Eastern Europe and the Middle East with his wife Magdalena (Nora von Waldstätten), with whom he has a daughter, until he outstays his welcome and has to move on. In a changing world with the fall of the Soviet Bloc, he becomes more and more of an irrelevance. It’s finally in Sudan that he is arrested.

Assayas and Franck don’t delve into biographical speculation as to what made Carlos the way he is: they simply show him, without overt comment. Edgar Ramirez, like Carlos Venezuelan-born, gives a tremendous performance in the title role, showing us Carlos ageing convincingly from youthful firebrand to washed-up middle age, and speaking his lines in a variety of languages. The other principal roles are well cast and entirely convincing. The use of music, with tracks from bands such as Wire, is another plus.

If you get the chance to see it, the full-length version is the one to go for, though the shorter one is an acceptable alternative. Of the nearly three hours cut from it, half of that comes from Part Three. Either way, this is one of the films of the year.

The DVDs

Carlos is released on DVD in two versions: the three-disc Trilogy version, and the single-disc Movie version. On DVD, the three parts run 99:45, 107:20 and 118:24, while the Movie version runs 158:30. All discs are dual-layered and encoded for Region 2 only. I have watched both versions on DVD. The Blu-ray release, not reviewed here, contains both versions. The affiliate links from this review are for the Trilogy DVD version. Links for the short version are here and for the Blu-ray here. Also please note that the single-disc DVD loses an extra that is on the other two releases. Personally, I would have preferred one four-disc DVD release containing both versions. The ratings below apply to the full-length version and its DVD release.

Shot on film in Super 35, Carlos is presented on DVD in a ratio of 2.40:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. (I wouldn’t be surprised if TV showings were in 16:9.) Assayas and his Dps go for a natural-light look, and are responsive to the differing quality of light of their many locations – hard and bright for Africa and the Middle East, gloomier for England, for example. This does mean that shadow detail isn’t great in some scenes, but I don’t doubt that’s intentional.

There are two soundtrack options: Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround (2.0). The 5.1 track is the one of choice, with many uses of directional sound, and the subwoofer contributing a lot to gunfire and explosions. Subtitles are fixed and for non-English dialogue only. The captions giving dates, locations and identifying particular persons are in French in the Trilogy version (and are subtitled as necessary, for example FPLP becoming PFLP) but are in English in the Movie version, and the same goes for the disclaimer at the beginning and the credits at the end.

The extras begin with a making-of featurette, presented in 4:3 (clips from the film are letterboxed) and running 20:22. We see Assayas and his crew (presumably as multilingual as the film, as Assayas speaks to them in English and French) as they film the OPEC raid. This item is of French origin, as any non-French dialogue is subtitled into French, and Optimum have provided fixed subtitles for any non-English dialogue.

The remaining extras are two interviews. The first is a short one (4:38) with Edgar Ramirez and a longer one with Olivier Assayas (19:07), both speaking in French with subtitles. The Assayas interview is not on the DVD of the short version. Assayas tells how that the original intention was to tell the story of Carlos’s tracking down and arrest, but he and Dan Franck realised that the story was much bigger than that, and fortunately the producers agreed to making a film of the eventual length. As the opening disclaimer says, the film should be thought of as a “fiction”, as accounts are contradictory and some aspects of Carlos’s life open to interpretation. He also refers to the debate of television versus cinema as “naff” (as the subtitle puts it): this nominal television production is more cinematic than many films intended for the big screen at the outset. He also discusses the casting of Edgar Ramirez – if Assayas hadn’t found his Carlos, he wouldn’t have gone ahead with making the film.


Updated: Oct 29, 2010

Get involved
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum
Carlos Review | The Digital Fix