The posters for Edgar Wright’s wonderful comic book adaptation Scott Pilgrim vs. the World came with the tagline, “An epic of epic of epicness.” It was all too appropriate, given that film’s attitude towards its clichéd, hipster doofus of a main character. Take that same line, but drop the irony, totally literalize it, and you have a perfect fit for Olivier Assayas’s latest film, Carlos, screening this weekend at the Walker Art Center as the closing film in the director’s month-long retrospective.
Clocking in at a butt-numbing 319 minutes, with two intermissions, Carlos is yet another entry in a recent trend: the epic film biopic following notorious historical figures, from Che Guevara (in Steven Soderbergh’s excellent two-parter) to this year’s not-so-good Mesrine, about the French gangster Jacques Mesrine. It’s an interesting, minor movement, harkening back to an old cinematic tradition, the road show engagement, where long films were welcome—even embraced—by the masses (like Lawrence of Arabia, for example, was). And as long as the length is justified, or in other words, there’s enough good cinematic stuff to chew on, then I’m all for it.
Carlos falls somewhere in between Che and Mesrine. In terms of scope and sheer size, it’s more ambitious than both films. Mesrine was a rambling, repetitive mess, and when I interviewed Cassel for the film back in August, he mentioned that he initially fought for it to be one standalone film, but was convinced otherwise by the screenwriter. The writer should have listened to Cassel, as the two-part gangster epic never once made a convincing argument for its epicness. The character simply wasn’t strong enough to sustain that running time.
Che was brilliant because, for one thing, even after more than four hours in two parts, there was much more story to tell. But Soderbergh and his screenwriters decided wisely to focus the films on two guerrilla campaigns—one a success, the other a failure—making the film both a biopic about an important historical figure and also being about the very idea of guerrilla warfare. They didn’t attempt to cram in all the events of Guevara’s extraordinary life. That project had a focus to it that is certainly missing in Mesrine, and, to a lesser extent, in Carlos.
As long as Assayas’s film is, it rarely lags—though in the third chapter, there are some moments that drag. It’s an exciting, entertaining, and beautifully constructed piece of epic cinema. It’s a true triumph, the rare kind of theatergoing experience that will inform, enlighten, and entertain, and in no way a stuffy, awards-baiting biopic (thankfully). Assayas does right by the character, the Venezuelan-born revolutionary Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, who founded a worldwide terrorist organization and raided the 1975 OPEC meeting, amongst many other radical and murderous deeds he did for hire. He takes the moniker “Carlos” early on, and soon becomes a media star. The film traces more than two decades of his incredible life, touching on his career as, essentially, a freelance terrorist, and ending with his arrest by the French (he’s still in prison serving a life sentence).
The film moves so briskly, especially in the first section, that at times it’s difficult to keep up with who’s who, unless you’re already familiar with the history and the people involved (in which case, this film will be even more of a treat, I suspect). Taking a page from David Fincher’s work on Zodiac, Carlos is exhaustively researched and follows a straightforward trajectory, never looking back to stop and ponder, but always pushing forward. So many names are dropped (thankfully we get text on screen naming people so we can follow), and we jump from location to location so quickly that the narrative can feel like a daunting task to keep up with. It’s the equivalent of a turntable moving at the wrong speed, like the pace of the film is moving too fast and sounds high-pitched.
When things slow down and focus on more specific activities, like Carlos’s raid of the 1975 OPEC meeting—a thrilling, hour-long sequence that’s as tense, violent and action-heavy as anything you’re likely to see this year—that’s when the film really shines. That sequence is the centerpiece of the film, and something to behold.
But the film really is about the life of Carlos, so we get a lot of information, and nearly all of it feels essential to the film (a shorter cut will screen in some theaters, but I wouldn’t waste my time; this is the true version, the only one you should see). If you’ve been keeping up with other films this decade that have explored real-life terrorist organizations, like last year’s Baader Meinhof Complex or Steven Spielberg’s brilliant Munich, you’ll see where the story threads and characters cross paths, like a cinematic connect-the-dots of real-life events and people. It’s a lot fun, actually, and works as a history lesson as well. Those films, along with Carlos, have all explored with intelligence the nature and idea of terrorism, but have made use of action-movie tropes to lend the history a sense of tension and excitement.
Of course, these epic biopics are only as good as their lead actors. I loved Benicio Del Toro’s portrayel of Che, and Cassel was appropriately charismatic and vile in Mesrine (really the only thing worth your time in those films). But it’s Édgar Ramírez’s performance as Carlos that really shines the brightest amongst the three. This is an incredible, star-making performance, one that will be more of a launch pad for the Venezuelan actor (who also had a small role in Che: Part 1). Hollywood has already taken notice—Ramírez has been in The Bourne Ultimatum, Vantage Point, and Domino—but I imagine he’ll get larger roles here on out, not simply reduced to a bit character. Carlos is a great film, to be sure, but this performance is its greatest strength.
Ramírez is entirely convincing as Carlos the seducer (you’ll no doubt lose track of the many, many women he beds in the film), the faux revolutionary (he’s shown to be more of an opportunist than a man dedicated to the cause), the salesman (unafraid to take on any cause if it pays well), and a killer. It’s at times an unflattering portrayal, painting Carlos as a man unafraid to sell out. But yet, we want to follow his story all the way through, thanks to this central performance. It’s also an incredible physical transformation, as Ramírez gains weight for the later years of Carlos’s life, but that’s only the surface look of the character. It’s what the actor does with his face, his posture, the way he carries himself and enters a room ready to take it over that makes this such a wonderful, memorable piece of acting. The sense of change in the character from beginning to end is staggering, wholly convincing. Also incredible is that he speaks five different languages in the film, all of them believably.
Assayas’s direction and deft handling of the truckloads of information is estimable as well, and light years apart from his beautiful film from last year—Summer Hours, a small, intimate family drama about the sentimental value of art—but yet still similar in how he finds the smaller, intimate details that tell us everything about characters. I respect that he got this film made, and couldn’t be happier that it’s making its way to the United States, as we need more films this ambitious. So yeah, Carlos is long, very long (but hey, not Béla Tarr, Satantango long), but don’t let that scare you away. Take a day this weekend (it screens at 1 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday, which is the perfect time to watch it) and make it about going to the movies. If you do, you’ll be amazed at just how entertaining a more than five-hour-long film can be.