I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie like Carlos. It’s hard to imagine a film that has dived in so deeply, or addressed as broadly, the world of international terrorism, its leaders, and its martyrs. Director Olivier Assayas sweeps us so effortlessly across continents, times, and languages, the sheer feat of accomplishing a work of this magnitude is nothing short of astonishing.
Edgar Ramirez delivers a captivating, wholly convincing and compelling performance as Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, sometimes called “Carlos,” the Venezuelan terrorist who grew to fame and infamy in the 1970s and 80s. He electrifies the screen with a commanding power in what truly should have been a star-making performance. Like the film itself, he takes on various personae, countless fake identities, rolling non-native languages off his tongue with apparent ease.
As odd as this comparison may sound, I kept being reminded of Alan Parker’s Evita (admittedly, one of my favorite movies and certainly one of my favorite musicals). The theme of leveraging politics, or terror, into fame and infamy is a very interesting one. More so than Evita, Carlos exploits this to full affect, seamlessly weaving in real-world video reels and radio news updates, heightening both the credibility and ironic romanticizing of such terrible acts. (For the record, I do not think Carlos romanticizes terror in the least; rather, it is a creative choice to reflect one take on how Carlos the Jackal shaped his career for the press coverage. Whether that is true or not I cannot say, though it does make for interesting storytelling within the film.)
Carlos the movie is told rather unconventionally; it starts with a fairly linear narrative, with Carlos and his nuclear family entrenched in petty bougois politics. Just as he derails into organized intimidation, murder, and mass terror, as does the story, throttling us from the familiarity of home and stability to a dizzying array of new faces, locales, networks to navigate. Not only does this communicate the scope of influence and power Carlos accumulated, but also provides a chilling reminder of the omnipresence of evil and parties waiting to inflict terror upon their enemies.
Even beyond the rational, narrative means of storytelling, Carlos is a mass sensory overload. Exposing our gaze to the sun-washed deserts of the Middle East and the freezing winters of Europe, fueled by the pounding eclectic punk rock / New Wave soundtrack, the sheer power of the visual/audio cues is a force unto itself. Even when the story goes right over our heads, the film guts right to our hearts through its masterful design.
Granted, Carlos is a 5-hour movie, not without its share of violence, sex, and wholly disturbing content and characters. But it is a totally captivating, unapologetic dive into contemporary evil and what drives an individual to carry it out.