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Cannes '10 Day 8: Terrorized

Posted by Wesley Morris  May 19, 2010 11:55 AM

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When you're invited to spend five hours and thirty-three minutes watching a notorious Marxist revolutionary do his thing, you're hoping for something, well, modestly extraordinary. So much for that. Olivier Assayas's "Carlos" gives us Carlos the Jackal as a decades-spanning, international epic, and while it's certainly good. It could have been just as effective in perhaps less than half its running time. To be fair, the movie was made as a miniseries for French television, which is why it was being screened outside the main competition. Cannes purists apparently went bananas over the possibility that some dumb old TV movie would dare tarnish their precious Palme D'or. 

"Carlos" is hardly dumb. But it peaks early and never returns to the sharper ideas and sharper filmmaking of the second of its three sections. So a decent film about how a nice Venezuelan boy -- Ilich Ramírez Sánchez -- becomes an anti-capitlist, anti-imperialist, pro-Palestine Marxist revolutionary (and what that even means) gradually descends into gangster-film clichés that would make more sense in an actual gangster film. The intellectual (Nora Von Waldstätten) who'll become his wife proclaims her German-feminism while wearing a tiny robe (it's pink) that barely disguises her lady bits. Soon, the camera is peeking at the little black bow on her panties while she's bent over her groom to be. By the late 1970s, this version of Ramírez Sánchez, played by a fully committed Edgar Ramirez, is a womanizing, chauvinist partier, in love with his legacy. 

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Assayas wrote the movie with Dan Franck, and he captures the many downsides of life as a contract terrorist for assorted governments. For one thing, you need eyes in the back of your head. Ramírez Sánchez becomes a version of what he's fighting to rid the earth of -- a man who loved power and luxury. As the bodies pile up, you realize that the swifter Arab terrorists are perfectly capable of wreaking havoc for themselves, without expecting the world's congratulations. His hypocrisy and narcissism aren't lost on Assayas, but the final two hours wallow in Carlos's ideological (and bodily) flab -- as he puffs out Ramirez bears a funny resemblance to Mark Ruffalo doing "Scarface." If we get one scene of trumped up domestic distress, we must get 15: "I'm not just your husband! I'm your leader!" (During the intermission, Ramirez found himself in the bathroom with men shouting dialogue from the movie to him -- a sign, at the very least, of the film's likely permanence as a cult item.)

This is the somewhat electric movie I imagine people expected from Steven Soderbergh's more rigorous and deliberate "Che," which showed here two years ago as a similar, if slightly shorter event and also had a role for Edgar Ramirez. "Carlos" isn't as strong, either, as Volker Schlondorff's "The Legend of Rita" or Uli Edel's "The Baader Meinhof Complex,"  which traveled similar avenues of German terrorist outfits. But Assayas is out to entertain, and maybe over the course of three nights, the film has less anticlimactic effect. Or not. After five-and-a-half hours, a perfectly smart movie became, in the last act set in the Sudan, an extra-strength episode of "Miami Vice."

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Who knows: it could be that I hadn't sufficiently recovered from Lee Chang-dong's "Poetry," which screened this morning and found subtle ways to break my heart. Yoon Jeong-hee, in her first role in two decades, plays a grandmother in a South Korean provincial town balancing bad news with her enrollment in a community-center poetry class. 

This is a warm, deftly made film that uses the humor and tenderness in Yoon's performance to dramatize the artistic and emotional depths we don't know we have. Lee, making his first film since 2007's "Secret Sunshine," is astoundingly skilled at maintaining a perfect tone. This could have veered into a comic thriller, like Boon Joon-ho's "Mother," or an all-out melodrama. But Lee modulates his touch just enough so that the film's bizarre moral and sexual turns don't derail what is essentially a life-size movie about loss and self-discovery. Afterwards, I ran into a friend outside a sandwich shop who had just left the Palais, and we did something I hadn't ever done here. We sat at a table outside and cried in the rain.

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

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