The Glamour and the Glory -- and the Girls
In mini-series form, Carlos may play better as Sundance Channel’s first original scripted project, or even in its two-and-a-half-hour theatrical release form. Also to be available VOD and in selected venues as full three-section five-hour-nineteen-minute “epic,” director/co-writer Olivier Assayas’ test of endurance does not in the final analysis deliver. It must be conceded that at the New York Film Festival -- an intermission at minute 221 -- many were taken with it, but this repetitious, pointless “dramatization retracing two decades” needs serious trimming.
The best section is the last, paradoxically so since by then Carlos (Edgar Ramírez) is a drinker running to fat who gets liposuction, has testicular cancer, and is both a faux and a real (weapons) businessman hunted, harried and unwelcomed by former comrades and not in control of his own destiny. By the time the famous terrorist is betrayed in Khartoum in 1994 and illegally brought to France for trial, the Venezuelan is a middle-aged shell on the order of Peruvian Abimael Guzmán, the bulky Shining Path founder-leader ranting from a cage two years earlier.
In 2008 Che also opened at the NYFF, where, lumbering at four hours twenty-two minutes, it exhibited the same lack of depth. Castro’s disciplinarian Argentine was wary of revealing emotions, and so the Soderbergh dramatized stick figure is not sympathetic or deep enough to carry the weight. In similar manner, so many “uncharted periods, shadowy areas and contradictions” obscure the life of Ilich “Carlos the Jackal” Ramírez Sánchez that, despite research and cross-referencing, the character, onscreen for the entire journey, is one-dimensional and, perhaps inadvertently the truth, not charismatic.
Full-blown at twenty-five, he is sprung in medias res and, beyond girth, does not grow. Moreover, as distinct from classical drama and epic, nothing later fills in what brought him to be what he is at the botched 1974 bombing of an Israeli bank in London and the Japanese Red Army fiasco at The Hague. That he was expelled from university in Moscow for “indiscipline” is a peripheral one-liner. And in a few words the wife (Magdalena Kopp, played by Nora von Waldstätten) whom, the pot calling the kettle, he accuses of turning petit bourgeois leaves with their daughter (Loulwa Maad) for the terrorist’s parents and construction mogul brother in Caracas.
Equally shallow are the man’s political convictions, which are boiled down to unquestioning obedience to him, and to the Leftist slogans he mouths with the pampered Latin Americans who study and party in Paris far from the wretched of the earth.
What might bring shudders is his capacity to kill on the instant, in the midst of urbanity. His lack of thought, discipline and philosophy is pointed out by several others, including his boss for a while, calm cruel Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine co-founder and commando coordinator Wadie Haddad (Ahmad Kaabour). The latter is real and scary in the movie, together with the kamikaze JRA four; and with Germany’s casual Marxist-nihilist Revolutionary Cells, and hair-trigger “Nada” (Julia Hummer) of the 1975 hostage-taking of Vienna OPEC ministers (who remain well-groomed throughout); with the gemütlich couple “Boni” and Brigitte (Aljoscha Stadelmann, Katharina Schüttler) who die offscreen at Entebbe, and the morally bankrupt realpolitiker heads of state and their minions.
A real-life hostage freed in Lebanon in 1992 remarked that terrorism must slowly but inevitably destroy its practitioners. But Carlos fails to indicate any internal life or deterioration. No basis is established for an uncharacteristic concern for wounded conscience-ridden “Angie” (Christophe Bach). Expensively attired and darkly attractive like a young Oliver Reed, Carlos is, if nothing else, emotionless sexual hell on the ladies. Physically nasty with a bargirl informer, he usually relies on charm to seduce and abandon. Individually brief, the many gropings, couplings and bare breasts more than make a point, add up in frames and time, and are one place to begin trimming.
There are so many conquests in his well-heeled international playboy existence that one is hard-pressed to keep them straight. Using several languages for realism -- the real, English- and Russian-schooled Carlos is supposedly polyglot -- the production skips all over Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, the latter recreated in Lebanese locations, so it grows difficult as well to keep track of arms dealers, terrorist/freedom fighters, police officials and diplomats. These shifting sands could be edited, too, even if one would hate to lose two wonderful, only superficially comic, Budapest police partners.
While Carlos the film is an inflated action movie, Carlos the monster-man remains as enigmatic as before.
(Released by IFC Films; not rated by MPAA.)