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September 30, 2011

Movies You Missed 6: Carlos

Carlos This week in movies you missed: terrorism, '70s style, in one of the most highly acclaimed films of last year.

Each week I review a brand-new DVD release picked for me by Seth Jarvis, buyer for Burlington's Waterfront Video, where you can obtain these fine films. (In central Vermont, try Downstairs Video.)

What You Missed

A five-and-a-half-hour globe-trotting action adventure movie without a hero. Director Olivier Assayas (also known for the more sedate Summer Hours) crafted this epic for French television. It chronicles the exploits of notorious left-wing militant Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, aka "Carlos the Jackal" (played by Edgar Ramirez), who terrorized Europe with bombings, murders and hostage takings in the '70s and '80s.

This is not a standard biopic. It doesn't start with Carlos' formative years (he was born in Venezuela and educated in the Soviet Union), and it takes a certain poetic license in depicting his career. A disclaimer notes that, because of "controversial gray areas" in Carlos' life, the film involves imagined scenes and dialogue and should be taken as fiction. This didn't stop the real Carlos, currently imprisoned, from bringing lawsuits against the filmmakers. Having failed to stop the film's release, his lawyer argued he should receive royalties.

Why You Missed It

Many critics put Carlos on their Top 10 lists after seeing the full version at Cannes or other festivals. A shortened version played in some American theaters, but not here. It's also been shown on the Sundance Channel.

Should You Keep Missing It?

If you like well-made action films that make you think, or epics about the rise and fall of criminals, go grab this. Carlos may be long, but it has all the visual excitement that Michael Mann's Public Enemies, for instance, was lacking.

You should be prepared to accept that, as I already mentioned, there's no hero. Carlos is never a sympathetic character. Since we never learn anything about his background (you'll have to read up on that yourself), we can't feel we grasp his motivations as we do Tony Montana's in Scarface. He's just there, and the director takes a pseudo-documentary approach to his crimes, generally leaving the moralizing to the viewer.

What we do know is that Carlos never questions his ideology, which was inculcated early on (his dad named him after Lenin). He never questions the virtue of violence. And he gets off on that violence and the fame it brings him. In fact, he's such an intense, sociopathic narcissist that any action fan who admires him for being a "badass" early in the film should change their tune as it progresses.

Will they, though? Some people argue that films like this glamorize terrorism. But to come away seeing Carlos as a cool badass, you'd have to ignore large parts of the film, including the best section, set in 1975, in which Carlos takes the Vienna OPEC delegates hostage.

This is great action filmmaking. It has clever little period touches, like a terrorist realizing he's been shot and lighting up a cigarette before he examines the wound. In the slower sections, Carlos' conversations with the delegates (and his fellow terrorists) raise the ethical questions that don't seem to bother our protagonist.

I particularly liked Carlos' attempt to win over the Saudi oil minister after telling him he's been marked for death, by explaining that it's nothing personal — they're both just "pawns in the game of history." In that scene, Carlos comes off as an intelligent lunatic who's convinced himself he's a superhero laying down the law all over the globe. The sequence may or may not be factually accurate, but it's compelling drama.

The movie's last section kind of drags, but it does give you the spectacle of Ramirez packing on pounds for his role.

Verdict: If you can get past the "no hero" part and don't mind subtitles, check it out. (Parts of the film are in English, so it's not that heavy on the reading.) If you have eight hours handy, this would make an excellent double feature with The Baader Meinhof Complex.

Other New Releases This Week That You May Have Missed:

  • L'Amour Fou (a doc about Yves St.-Laurent and Pierre Berge) 
  • The Arbor (an acclaimed "docu-fiction" about the short, sad life of British working-class playwright Andrea Dunbar)
  • The Hour (British TV series about Cold War journalism, with Dominic West, Romola Garai and Ben Whishaw. Never heard of this, but it sounds promising.)
  • The Ledge (Some have called this indie drama with Liv Tyler "The Passion for atheists." It didn't make as much money, though.)
  • Good Neighbors (There's a serial killer on the loose in Montreal in this well-reviewed, character-oriented indie.)
  • The Phantom Carriage (Blu-Ray of a Swedish classic that influenced Bergman)
  • "Modern Family," season 2 (for those of you who prefer to watch your TV on DVD)


Excellent film/mini-series. I watched it a couple of months ago in one sitting and didn't get bored for a second of its 5+ hours. Really glad that the Criterion Collection released this one.

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