The story of Ilich Ramírez Sanchez (Édgar Ramírez), a.k.a. Carlos the Jackal, as told by celebrated French filmmaker Olivier Assayas.
Here’s what I wrote about Carlos back in October of 2010:
“Has there been a more audacious and challenging motion picture in 2010 than Summer Hours and Boarding Gate director Olivier Assayas’ five-plus hour Carlos? Split into three parts, this exhilarating biography of Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, also known as “Carlos,” also known by his carnivorous moniker “The Jackal,” is the stuff of legend. Freewheeling, paced as if it were shot out of a canon, running through about a decade of history with the man proclaiming his intention to be a radical force for Palestine throughout France and England, the movie is a take-no-prisoners kinetic rollercoaster running the gamut of human emotion.
I’ll admit I knew nothing of Carlos before sitting down to watch this movie. His run through the 1970’s and early 80’s wasn’t one I was remotely familiar with, the things that made him both legendary and notorious not exactly on my Elementary School radar.
That made watching Assayas’ latest all the more astonishing. Not only is his massive opus a document examining a time and place that still has resonance for much of the world, but it also shows profound insight into the mechanics and the mechanisms that brought us to where we are today. While the film doesn’t pass judgment, it also doesn’t condone, and as such makes for a fascinating journey that’s as bumpy, raucous, horrific and energetic as the man right at its very core.
What is most amazing was how at even more than five hours I never once felt bored by the epic. As soon as the first part came to its cliffhanger finale all I wanted to do was immediately get a look at the next chapter, the same going for the third the moment the second ended. By the time it was over I wasn’t tired, I wasn’t stiff and I certainly wasn’t ready for a nap. But I was exhausted, physically and mentally drained by all that has just come to pass. Yet the exhilaration I felt at the climax simply would not dissipate, and in all honesty all I really wanted to do was spend another half-a-day watching the darn thing again.
I think what’s most compelling here is that Assayas finds away to show Carlos as the multidimensional enigma for which he was. While his terrorist acts cannot be condoned there were more sides to him than the man who coordinated an attack on the French Embassy in The Hague by militants of the Japanese Red Army or who himself planned and executed a spectacular assault on a meeting of OPEC ministers. This was also a master manipulator who himself could be manipulated by those he thought shared his ideology but who only hungered for power, his narcissistic failings and at times massive ego keeping him from seeing a bigger picture where his status was diminished and his desires demeaned.
If a person looks at Carlos and only sees a visceral, procedural-like action flick celebrating a terrorist than they’re just as bad at looking at the broader spectrum of things as the main character oftentimes is. This movie has action, it has suspense, and there are numerous times where Carlos acts a bit like James Bond sweeping women into his bed and using his wits and his smarts to escape from authorities. But it is also a diagram of a time in history that cannot be forgotten and a look at the quagmire that continues to broaden, one that now affects virtually every person on the planet.
The sheer scope of this is awe-inspiring and, as such, it isn’t always perfect. Assayas and his screenwriting partner Dan Franck (La Séparation) have done an incredible amount of research and there isn’t an ounce of the film that doesn’t feel authentic. But because the size is so massive and reach is so long there are times they do resort to forms of cinematic shorthand that doesn’t quite have the zest or the zeal that other portions do, and especially during the almost funereal final chapter I kind of got the feeling the pair didn’t always know exactly what it was that they wanted to say.
Not that this is much of a problem. Anchored by a performance by Édgar Ramírez (Che, The Bourne Ultimatum) as the titles character that easily ranks as the greatest he has ever given (and, in a just world, would earn him Oscar consideration), and fueled by an attention to detail and an eye for nuance that is stunningly intimate, this is one of those “Holy Cow!” moments in cinema history you hear a lot about but very seldom get to see for yourself. Carlos isn’t just the best movie of the year; it is arguably one of the single greatest motion pictures I have ever seen.”
Nothing has changed. Carlos, if anything, has only grown on me even more. This is a monumental achievement, a masterpiece for Assayas, a singular achievement that cements him as a modern cinematic master capable of working inside any genre or style. This movie is a living, breathing organism, a sentient being that morphs and changes into something new and different every time you watch it. I adore this picture, and I couldn’t be more ecstatic about having it as part of my personal library.
Carlos is presented on two dual-layer 50GB Blu-rays featuring MPEG-4 AVC Video with a 2.35:1/1080p transfer. As stated in the included booklet: “Supervised by cinematographers Yorick Le Saux and Denis Lenoir and approved by director Olivier Assayas, this new high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit Datacine from the 35mm 2-perforation negative.”
Carlos comes to Blu-ray in French DTS Master Audio 5.1 and includes optional English SDH subtitles. Again, from the included booklet: “This film features a fully digital soundtrack. The 5.1 surround audio was mastered at 24-bit from the original digital audio master files using Pro Tools HD.”
Criterion has lauded these two Blu-rays with a ton of special features. These include:
· Selected-Scene Audio Commentary by cinematographer Denis Lenoir
· Shooting of the OPEC Sequence
· Original Theatrical Trailer
· Interview with director Olivier Assayas
· Interview with actor Édgar Ramírez
· Interview with cinematographer Denis Lenoir
· Carlos: Terrorist Without Borders
· Interview with German left-wing militant Hans-Joachim Klein
· Maison de France
These extras are extraordinary, the best ones (best being relative, as all are outstanding) coming on the second disc. All three interviews with the filmmakers are wonderful, especially the nearly 50-minue one with Assayas. Also excellent is the one with militant Klein, the controversial figure having plenty to say about the film’s subject matter and its leading character. Plus, the two documentaries, especially the 90-minute Maison de France chronicling the West Berlin bombing, are extraordinary, and I found the watching of the both of them to be fairly close to mesmerizing.
The Blu-ray also comes with a 40-page Illustrated Booklet featuring essays by critics Colin MacCabe and Greil Marcus, plus biographies on selected historical figures written by the film's historical adviser Stephen Smith..
Carlos is a masterpiece. See it immediately.