You say you want a revolution: Vanity drives terrorist as much as violence
The terrorist (Édgar Ramírez) strides into the conference room where his band of radical leftists have taken hostages. He shoots a minor functionary to death without batting an eye, then addresses the crowd of 60 OPEC ministers: “My name is Carlos. You may have heard of me.’’ The date is Dec. 20, 1975, the place Vienna, and for the briefest of moments the image that the terrorist carries in his head finally jibes with reality. He’s the rock star of the international revolution.
The scene serves as the clear-eyed pivot of “Carlos,’’ an epic saga — yes, that 319-minute running time is correct — about violence, vanity, and towering self-delusion from French director Olivier Assayas (“Summer Hours,’’ “Demonlover’’). The film spans from 1973 to 1994 and sticks close to the known facts about the Venezuelan born Ilich Ramírez Sánchez and code-named Carlos (he was dubbed “Carlos the Jackal’’ by the media, but the phrase never crops up here). Yet for all its gargantuan ambition, “Carlos’’ moves like a greyhound out of the gate, fleet and assured and focused on the business at hand. It’s a subtle, ultimately staggering portrayal of a bloody-minded ideologue who convinced only himself.
When he starts out, signing up for the anti-Zionist struggle as a foot soldier in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Sánchez is already a legend in his own mind. “Choose a code name,’’ instructs PFLP head Wadie Haddad (Ahmad Kaabour). “I already have,’’ Carlos responds. He blithely dismisses a proffered pistol: “I’m used to more serious weapons.’’
It’s all bravado, and it works — sort of. Carlos’s early acts of political violence are lethal farces of jammed guns and Japanese Marxists who get lost on the way to the kidnapping. A plan to use a rocket launcher on an El Al flight at Orly ends with the German accomplices hitting the wrong plane. When all else fails, bomb a Jewish-owned Paris café; two die and 34 are wounded, but at least you get noticed.
“Carlos’’ suggests that that’s all its antihero really wants. Ramírez — who ironically played a CIA hit man in “The Bourne Ultimatum’’ — gives a mesmerizing performance as a man who never stops watching himself perform. Carlos speaks in revolutionary boilerplate, softly and to the point; he never, ever smiles. “I’m just another soldier in the struggle,’’ he modestly claims, but we’ve seen him standing naked before his mirror, marveling at the body of a destroyer god.
The long arc of the movie traces the character’s rise and rot, as his charisma blinds his fellow Euro-leftists, the media, and ultimately himself. The many women Carlos charms with hot fugitive sex eventually figure it out: He’s just another egotistical bad boy, only with a price on his head. The Arabs whom Carlos deals with — Syrians and Lebanese and Iraqis, oh my — view him with weary suspicion as well, waiting for his usefulness to run out. The terrorist says he’s doing it for “the people,’’ but the only time we see them is in archival news footage of his bombings.
Assayas throws secondary characters and datelines at us like bullets from a scattergun; you have to pay attention and you want to. In a weird way, “Carlos’’ is a nostalgic trip back to a time when radical-chic violence still had credibility, before the Berlin Wall and the USSR fell and the revolutionaries outlived the revolution. Carlos’s colleagues are lean young men and fierce young women from Spain and Germany and France; their eyes sparkle with fanaticism. Nora von Waldstätten brings an angry sensuality to Magdalena Kopp, the most long-suffering of Carlos’s wives, but the scariest person in the entire movie is Julia Hummer as a savage little leftist named Nada.
After the OPEC incident, “Carlos’’ slows down — it really is a rock-star saga, with dizzying heights of “accomplishment’’ followed by inevitable torpor and decline. And as with other rock-star sagas, the back half is something of a haul: greed and lust and age getting the better of the man as his illusions mount higher and our interest starts to drift.
Yet the thing holds you. Created as a miniseries for French television, “Carlos’’ is being released theatrically both in its full five-plus hours (at Coolidge Corner beginning Sunday) and in a 166-minute cut (at the Museum of Fine Arts today and tomorrow only); the longer version, steeping you in time and place, is the way to go. This is Assayas’s attempt to work on the operatic scale of “The Godfather,’’ whose echoes extend to the Brando-esque swagger of the leading man and a scene, late in the going, involving a child running through a backyard garden. There’s more than a bit of Scorsese here, too, with a blistering score of late-’70s post-punk (Wire, the Cure, the Feelies) that probably wasn’t what Carlos was listening to at the time but which galvanizes the movie with mood and menace.
That said, the overall tone is cool and watchful, even when the director rouses himself to explosive set pieces like a leftist party interrupted by the French police (it doesn’t end well) or the fearsome gun battles surrounding the OPEC conference. After his 1994 arrest and extradition from Sudan, the real Carlos is now serving a life sentence in a French prison; he has read this film’s screenplay and is reportedly not at all pleased. And why should he be? On its subtlest and driest level, “Carlos’’ is a comedy about a man who said he wanted to be the next Che Guevara but really just wanted his own T-shirt.