CARLOS - Blu-ray review

Carlos is a man who has difficulty squeezing into a room because his ego has preceded him

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As embodied by Édgar Ramirez, Carlos is a man who has difficulty squeezing into a room because his ego has preceded him and crammed every nook and/or cranny with its slouching mass. The infamous terrorist, born in Venezuela in 1949 as Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, was dubbed by the press as Carlos the Jackal, but is portrayed in Olivier Assayas' sprawling 339 minute film, shot as a three part French television mini-series, as Carlos the Jackass.

A preening twit who splits his time between gazing lovingly into a mirror and fondling his gun(s), Carlos does not seem like the kind of person who could lead an army of fat men to an Old Country Buffet, but his animal magnetism (i.e. sociopathy combined with good looks) somehow convinced a series of sycophants and partisans to eagerly walk in his shadow (at least until they got to know him better) as he conducted one botched but bloody terrorist campaign after another in the ‘70s and ‘80s in London, Paris, Vienna and points abroad. His exploits made him an international man of mystery who was rendered a far more romantic figure in the papers than he is in Assayas' film, or in the recollections of anyone who knew or worked with him.

Carlos was a devoted Marxist and operated in the name of Palestinian Liberation, but while he may have had genuine ideological convictions there is little evidence provided in the film that he promoted anything beyond the cult of Carlos. One can only imagine how noxious his YouTube channel would have been – Carlos the Duckface?

Just the task of capturing an ego this size almost necessitates a lengthy running time, but writer-director Assayas and co-writer Dan Franck spare no details as they unspool this epic, decade-spanning, continent-hopping tale with a cast of over one hundred speaking roles. "Carlos" lavishes plenty of attention on its action sequences, including a stunning hostage standoff at OPEC headquarters in Vienna which takes up nearly one-quarter of the film's running length, but devotes more screen time to the down moments in between operations when Carlos spends his considerable energy promoting his brand and spreading his seed. Ladies loved Carlos, apparently for at least one good reason.

I was initially put off by the redolent narcissism of the main character, and I was unable to understand how anyone could conceivably find him a charismatic leader, no matter how charismatic Édgar Ramirez is in an extraordinary and exhausting lead performance. But as the film proceeds, it's clear that Assayas and company are gleefully undermining any romantic or heroic perceptions that may linger about the murderous thug who, as it turns out, wasn't even particularly good at his job though he was, admittedly, damned good at garnering attention for his "cause.". The third and final episode finds Carlos in rapid decline, forced into a semi-retirement by his Syrian hosts, growing a pot belly and dealing with various medical problems a totally cool and macho dude like Carlos would never be willing to admit to.

"Carlos" was released in theaters in a "short" 165-minute version which I have never seen, but this is the full-length opus as intended by Assayas, split into three episodes as it was originally broadcast on French TV. It is difficult to imagine the project having as much force in its more compact release as the passage of time and the commensurate deterioration of Carlos' body and aura are the keys to the film. Whatever claims he may have had to being a "great man" at first are slowly ground down by the forces of time and the shifts in geopolitical culture. His megalomania and unpredictability cease to be media-friendly assets rather quickly, and he becomes a problem to be neutralized by his employers. By the time he is arrested in Paris in 1994 (with the assistance of former associates) he is unlikely to be missed by anybody. At least he'll serve his prison sentence with the only person he every truly loved.


The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 format. The 1080p transfer is very sharp and features the film's cool, darker palette in perfect balance. Though there are flashes of gunfire, this is not a flashy color design and this presentation is very pleasing with especially strong blacks that show no sign of artifacting or any evidence of boosting or compression. Excellent transfer.


The DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 track is a full and resonant one, strong both during the action sequences and in capturing the sense of space as characters talk on set. Assayas peppers the movie with postpunk music that I like a lot, but don't necessarily think fits well with the movie, but the lossless audio presents them all quite well. The film is mostly in English but several languages are spoken throughout (Ramirez speaks five himself). Optional English subtitles are provided.


Disc One includes Episode One (105 min.) and Episode Two (112 min.) On the Episode One menu, you can watch a Theatrical Trailer. On the Episode Two menu, you can watch a short (22 min.) about the making of the OPEC scene and you can listen to a Selected-Scene Commentary by Denis Lenoir, one of the two cinematographers on "Carlos."

Disc Two throws a barrage of extras at the viewer starting with new 2011 interviews with Olivier Assayas (43 min.), Édgar Ramirez (20 min.), and Denis Lenoir (15 min.)

The rest of the extras are archival in nature.

"Carlos: Terrorist without Borders" (58 min.) is from an episode of the French television show "Les Brulures de l'histoire" and details the history of Carlos né Ilich Ramírez Sánchez featuring interviews with experts and former associates. It's a bit dry but very informative and if you only plow through one of the extensive features on this disc, I recommend this one.

"Maison de France" (2003, 88 min.) is a film by Stefan Suchalla that treats the bombing (directed by Carlos and cronies) of the Maison de France in West Berlin in 1983. This is a film about the victims of Carlos' "freedom fighting" and though I have only had a chance to skim it, I look forward to watching the rest.

The disc also includes a 1995 interview with Hans-Joachim Klein, one of Carlos' henchman (and a major character in the film played by Christoph Bach). This was conducted by Daniel Leconte (also a producer on "Carlos") who tracked down the fugitive who had allegedly renounced his violent ways but was still in hiding. He wears a disguise during the interview which is quite revealing, not just by providing a different perspective on Carlos' activities but in suggesting that Klein isn't exactly all that repentant. Klein was subsequently arrested in 1998 and released on parole in 2003.

The beefy 40-page insert booklet includes an essay by critic Colin McCabe, an essay by critic Greil Marcus, and a timeline and other historical information about Carlos and his associates provided by Stephen Smith who serves as historical advisor on "Carlos."


"Carlos" appeared on many Top Ten lists last year. While I was not quite as bowled over as many of my colleagues (my inability to see Carlos as anything but a buffoon from the start was, I believe, a problem), I certainly appreciate Ramirez's immersive performance and the film's ability to shoot for an epic scope without ever seeming bloated or ponderous. The devil is in the details, and Assayas and crew are great at letting the details accumulate to create a mosaic rather than delivering a lecture or an overt political treatise. Criterion has provided "Carlos" in its full running length in three parts with a bevy of extras that should satisfy both fans of the film, and those interested in learning more about the man behind the myth of Carlos the Jackal.


Film Value