NYFF 2010: CARLOS (the five-hour version) Review

With a scope and a historical complexity that makes it feel like a David Lean picture about the salad days of international terrorism, Carlos impresses on any number of levels. But while we're making such a comparison, it's probably also worth recalling how confusing the extended resolution in Passage to India was to audiences--the movie had already had ended, hadn't it, so what was all this other stuff? Used to Hollywood-style films in which the wind-down following the climax is typically short and sweet, some folks may find the five-hour-plus version of Carlos that's screening at the New York Film Festival, er, challenging. "All right," you ask, "but how about those first four or so hours?" Well, at intermission I overheard one critic confess, "I could just watch this forever," a sentiment that pretty much sums up how I felt, too. 


To be fair, Olivier Assayas conceived and originally presented this long-form Carlos as a three-part television mini-series, so in an important sense it was never really meant to be consumed in one sitting like this. Spread out over multiple nights, the viewing experience would be more like picking up and putting down a novel told in major parts, or "books." Less viewer fatigue, to be sure, but also less of a noticeably disjointed quality between the different acts. Oh, and to be fair yet again, the final section of the film is indeed a full-blown third "act," not a mere resolution as I imply above. It only feels like a resolution when placed directly alongside the far more dynamic and cohesive opening two acts. 


Indeed, with its giddy yet troubling violence and its fabulous '70s style, Part 1 plays like a thrilling if straightforward biopic of the notorious "Carlos the Jackal": a portrait of the underground revolutionary as an arrogant young bomb-thrower. It's chock full of memorable set pieces and jaw-dropping moments of black humor. Part 2 depicts the title character as a seasoned leader in a multi-national network that sees itself as fighting the good fight against imperialism, Zionism, and whatever else is handy. Its dramatic focus is on the unbelievably audacious kidnapping of key oil ministers from an OPEC meeting in Austria. It's pretty clear while you're watching this middle section that its action, political themes, dramatic tension, and outsized personalities would make it work, after some tweaking, as a stand-alone movie in its own right. Part 3 takes a fall-of-mighty approach as Carlos wanders, nomadically and somewhat Lear-like, looking for a place to call home but hampered by both past mistakes and new betrayals. There are plenty of interesting moments in this final act (including an explicit nod to T.E. Lawrence), but overall its abrupt jumps forward in time make the narrative flow feel way too condensed, like a kind of shorthand. We meet characters who initially seem like big deals, but who are then quickly ushered off-stage. And Carlos's relationship with his young daughter is so rushed that its emotional aspects feel trite without the benefit of a more fleshed-out account.  


In truth, though, I'm not sure how else the material could have been presented once the commitment had been made to a strictly linear form of storytelling. Still, it's a shame to see the same hand that made such deft, artful leaps in chronology in Summer Hours come up a bit short here. It's also a shame because Assayas handles so many other challenges so well in the course of the film, including dramatic shifts in emphasis and tone that would have been too daunting to most other filmmakers. For example, we get Melville-like suspense sequences and pseudo-pulpy dialogue ("You have to prove yourself") seamlessly interwoven with a thoughtful deconstruction of the various political lenses through which we might view a Carlos as an actual historical personage. Indeed, taking a detached perspective on its central character that some audiences might mistake for moral relativism, Carlos presents him more as prototype than archetype. That is, the film brings vividly to life the period where the concept of terrorism was itself being defined, by its practitioners, its foes, and by the mass media. As a result, it presents the figure of the "terrorist" as exemplified by Carlos as a kind of fill-in-the-blank template. Is he a soldier without a battlefield, a revolutionary without an organized revolution behind him, a self-righteous hitman, or simply a confused and glib anti-hero of the darkest type?  


Of course in the end one of the chief virtues of the script is that it nimbly displays all these aspects of it subject matter. In this respect, Carlos is quite distinct from a film with which it shares many surface similarities, Uli Edel's The Baader Meinhof Complex. Assayas is not concerned with showing us the injustices that lead to terrorism, or classifying some bomb-planters as immoral and others as essentially moral but dangerously misguided. Sure, there are some characters whose nihilism is contrasted with Carlos's innate pragmatism, but in general Assayas and co-writer Dan Franck are out to problematize our conception of terrorism, not reduce or simplify it.

   

In fact, their behind-the-scenes look at operational terrorism is not mean to reveal a single message or truth that we've been kept ignorant of, but rather to show that the path of the terrorist is as overdetermined in its way as that of other types of political leaders (or pawns)--maybe even that there is no such thing as a "terrorist" in a generic sense. Instead, terrorists are like other people, or other villains, with varying motives, obligations, and loyalties, not to mention emotional quirks. In the title role, Edgar Ramirez is terrific at conveying the myriad, often contradictory, sides of his character, and that he speaks at least four languages becomes itself a sign of complexity, of the "identities" he must negotiate. Yes, he's a monster all right, but a monster one grows to understand.


The complete 5 hour version of Carlos screens tomorrow, October 2nd, at 11:00am, at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center. IFC releases Carlos theatrically in the US on October 15th, and On Demand, October 20th.   

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