Combustible Celluloid
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With: Édgar Ramírez, Alexander Scheer, Alejandro Arroyo, Ahmad Kaabour, Talal El-Jordi, Juana Acosta, Nora von Waldstätten, Christoph Bach, Rodney El Haddad, Julia Hummer, Antoine Balabane, Rami Farah, Aljoscha Stadelmann, Zeid Hamdan, Fadi Yanni Turk, Katharina Schüttler, Badih Abou Chakra, Basim Kahar, Cem Sultan Ungan
Written by: Dan Franck, Olivier Assayas
Directed by: Olivier Assayas
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: English, Arabic, German, Spanish, French, Hungarian, Japanese, Russian, with English subtitles
Running Time: 330
Date: 05/19/2010

Carlos (2010)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Planet Terror

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Olivier Assayas' Carlos has been turning up on many ten-best lists for 2010, and I think I know why. The primary reason is that it's 5-1/2 hours long. Critics love long movies. The extra effort deserves extra credit, I guess. I think it's like an endurance test, and it results in bragging rights. Just see if you can find a review that doesn't mention the movie's running time within the first 100 words. Secondly, it's a biopic, which is always impressive, and causes critics to sing the praises of whatever lead actor is cast. Thirdly, it's very "journalistic," with lots of names and places and facts, as well as lots of shaky-cam to suggest urgency and realism. (Thankfully the details onscreen are superbly designed, and it's a real time-machine experience.)

Who is this Carlos character? He's a terrorist, also known as "The Jackal," born in Venezuela. (By the way, he has nothing to do with the 1997 Bruce Willis movie The Jackal.) He spent the years between 1970 and 1994 trying to fight evil capitalists. He apparently tried several attacks on airplanes, but is most notorious for the 1975 raid on OPEC headquarters in Vienna, in which several people were killed. Édgar Ramírez plays the title role, onscreen nearly every minute of the 5-1/2 hours, and aging nearly 30 years. It's a powerhouse performance, regardless of the movie around him.

The film takes place in dozens of different cities and countries. Almost laughably, Assayas introduces dozens of characters with little title cards, with their names and job titles. Some of these characters are never heard from again, and others unexpectedly hang around and become major characters. Either way, unless you have a photographic memory, have a notepad and know shorthand, or already know this story like the back of your hand, you're never going to get all these names.

Oddly, the nearly six hour running time is never used to explore more deeply into Carlos' character; it feels rushed, but without being fast-paced. Like most biopics, this is mainly about what Carlos does, rather than who he is. During most of the running time, however, Carlos is either hiding out or planning attacks that fail or never happen. Thankfully, it's this downtime that finally, finally begins to show some cracks in Carlos' armor. It slowly becomes clear that Carlos is nothing but surface. He advertises himself as a revolutionary, and does everything in the name of the revolution. He has no inner life. In one scene, he plays with his daughter, and he clearly loves her, but he will give her up without a pause in the name of the revolution.

Additionally, Assayas occasionally slips in the information that, although Carlos is still wanted and needs to remain in hiding, he's essentially powerless. He continues to believe all the same things about himself, but he has no more bite. He has become a symbol, but a benign one. It takes some time to get to this point, though, and most of Carlos feels like fairly ordinary filmmaking; it's not a work of artistry, so much as it is a slavish re-creation. For this reason, I like Steven Soderbergh's Che (2008) a little better; it's denser and harder to watch, but at least it tries something.

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