Olivier Assayas's Carlos, a tour-de-force cinematic biography of the Venezuelan mercenary terrorist of the 1970s and 1980s, is a movie that moves - hurtling forward in cars, winging from country to country in airplanes, bursting through hotel and apartment doors. Both spare and sprawling, Carlos is a long and complex film (five and a half hours) that seems to go by in a series of vivid flashes.
Though opening text declares that the film "must be considered as a fiction" because of unverifiable details, the authenticity of Assayas's account is never in doubt. The script (written by Assayas and Don Franck with the aid of American journalist Stephen Smith) follows a classic rise-and-fall dramatic structure that exposes the bizarre shadow worlds of 1970s' politics, when Palestinian terrorists, Middle East dictators, Japanese revolutionaries, Eastern Bloc puppet-masters and German hippy revolutionaries were united by the lure of violence. Though made in three parts for French television, Carlos is shot on 35-mm film with no compromise to its big-screen intentions.
The first section establishes Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (Edgar Ramírez) as a cocky 23-year-old Venezuelan Marxist in London in the early seventies who becomes a volunteer soldier for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and takes the nom de guerre Carlos. His early operations are marked by their audacity and ineptness: An assassination attempt on a Israel-supporting Marks & Spencer executive; rocket launchers that hit the wrong plane at Paris's Orly Airport; a drug-store bombing that kills innocent Parisians in the name of Japanese revolutionaries.
The compellingly tense centrepiece of the film is Carlos's most notorious operation, the 1975 attack at the OPEC conference in Vienna, where he led a six-person team that killed three people and took a plane full of hostages to Algeria.
Later, fired by his Palestinian bosses for failing at his mission, he forms his own organization as a gun for hire working for dictators in Russia, Syria and Libya, and hides out in various safe haunts before his final ignominious arrest in 1994.
With headline-grabbing shocks as the goal, Carlos turned his personal pathology into a career. Ramirez, a Venezuelan like Carlos, handles the multilingual skills and physical demands of the role superbly (like Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, he lards on extra weight over the course of the film), but, by design, he suggests no real interior life to the character.
Assayas' film depicts Carlos (now 61, he's spending the rest of his life in a French jail) as a man lacking any conventional conscience. Carlos is always "on," performing for the mirror, the media, the women he sleeps with or the victims in front of his gun ("My name is Carlos. You may have heard of me," he says, introducing himself to his hostages). A preening terrorist for the Me generation, his primary drive was vanity and his main professional asset an absence of empathy.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, history turns against Carlos. His Soviet backers disappear and Arab supporters shuffle him off. There's a scene when, after being kicked out of Syria, the grandiose Carlos boasts that George Bush and the CIA are personally after him, but a disillusioned colleague sets him straight: The CIA views him as a former "wine bag" in Moscow's employ and "a historical curiosity." To Assayas's credit, he has deftly dramatized the history that allowed such a dangerous and unlikely curiosity to thrive.
- Directed by Olivier Assayas
- Written by Olivier Assayas and Dan Franck
- Starring Edgar Ramirez
- Classification: 14A
Carlos opens tonight in Toronto at the Bell Lightbox and Oct. 29 in Vancouver.