A meticulously researched, information-packed five and a half hour film about the life of notorious Venezuelan terrorist Carlos the Jackal, Carlos might sound like homework. Important, sure, but more of a chore than you might like to admit. It certainly could have been just that, but Olivier Assayas’s film is a kinetic livewire, as totally gripping in its fluid decade-spanning account as it is detailed in its biographical portrait.
That these two qualities can exist side-by-side so harmoniously is kind of remarkable — the film is as sprawling and messy as real life but doesn’t get bogged down in the exposition of small moments. Assayas’s and Dan Franck’s script is paced to perfection and Assayas directs the globe-hopping proceedings with a loose yet ever-aware hand that allows for the unpredictability of an era when international terrorism was booming to truly be felt.
And then there’s the lead performance of Édgar Ramírez as Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, or as he preferred to be called, Carlos. Playing a man magnetic and despicable in equal measures, Ramírez captures both the intense narcissism and idealism present in Carlos, and the increasing battle between the two that often defined his actions. He brings an amazing physicality to the role, packing on and shedding pounds and seemingly aging 20 years before our eyes — and that has a lot more to do with than just makeup.
The film traces Carlos’s beginnings as an enthusiastic member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and sees his pride and reputation swell up far beyond the scope of any one group to the point where his self-satisfaction easily outweighs his revolutionary goals. Along the way, he murders police, plants bombs, takes high-level hostages, sleeps with a ton of women, marries a couple of them, and garners a huge price on his head, propelled by the thrill of the spotlight and the sense that any second could be his last.
There’s a brooding storm of conflicted feelings inside Carlos, whose increasingly bourgeois lifestyle clashes with his Marxist beliefs, but Carlos isn’t a film focused on psychology. There’s no purported look into the mind of a terrorist here, and the film is better for it. Instead, we see Carlos in action, and the film’s cumulative effect is far more insightful than a ream of character introspection would’ve been.
Assayas keeps the film moving at a breathless pace, so much so that even big setpieces like the raid on an OPEC conference don’t feel like a high-energy standout, but simply part of the rapidly expanding whole. In the midst of all of that, the film remains astonishingly lucid. It’s a sprawl, but it sprawls out cogently.
The Blu-ray Discs
Criterion presents Assayas’s director’s cut of the film on two discs, split up into three parts, with the first two on disc one and the third on disc two. The film is presented in 1080p high definition with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The transfer here is pretty good, showcasing suitable high-def levels of detail and a nicely realized desaturated color palette that’s appropriate to the period. In fitting the film (and a stack of extras) on two discs, it appears Criterion may have squeezed out some detail, as the image occasionally appears muddy, especially in darker scenes, and is tinged with occasional digital artifacts. More room to breathe would likely have alleviated these problems, but the film still looks solid.
Audio is presented in a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that comes together magnificently, presenting dialogue (in all of its eight spoken languages throughout the film) clearly and cleanly up front, while filling out the mix with an anarchic set of postpunk songs and plenty of dynamic effects in the film’s action scenes.
Plenty of artistic and historical perspective to be found in the copious extras, most of which are found on disc two. On the first disc, there’s a 20-minute making-of about part two’s impressive OPEC raid sequence, a selected-scene commentary from DP Denis Lenoir where he talks about six scenes and the film’s theatrical trailer.
Disc two features Criterion-exclusive interviews with Assayas, Ramírez and Lenoir, each talking about their approach to the material. Assayas’s lengthy interview is particularly good as he gives a thorough account of production and the way he handled the material.
Two feature-length documentaries are included — one is a 1997 French TV production giving a broad overview of Carlos’s career as a terrorist and the other details the events surrounding a bombing orchestrated by Carlos in West Berlin that was not seen in the film. Also included is a 1995 interview with Hans-Joachim Klein, a terrorist cohort of Carlos’s, conducted in part by Daniel Leconte, the producer responsible for the genesis of the film.
The package also includes a booklet with essays by critics Colin MacCabe and Greil Marcus and a very detailed historical timeline of the events in Carlos’s life.
The Bottom Line
An utterly captivating five and a half hours, Carlos gets a superb release here, even if the visual quality is a little below par for Criterion.