Assessments of Olivier Assayas' 'Carlos' - his first near-masterpiece since, um, last year - will invariably begin with an acknowledgment of how long it is (319 minutes) and how short it feels (very). It's an understandable approach given that five-and-a-half hours is a daunting amount of time to spend with either a film or a person, and Assayas' biopic essentially asks its audience to do both. But it would be a real shame if people were scared off by the film's epic running time, as 'Carlos' is ironically the most accessible of the Parisian auteur's films - a kinetic, supple, and absorbing chronicle of one of the 20th century's most notorious (and openly narcissistic) terrorists.
Originally conceived for French television (where it aired earlier this year after premiering at Cannes) as a three-part miniseries, 'Carlos' follows the rise and lateral drift of Illich Ramirez Sanchez (a.k.a. Carlos), the infamous Venezuelan ex-patriot who contrived to play as pivotal a role in the Cold War as he possibly could, most memorably leading a hostage-taking assault on the 1975 OPEC conference in Vienna. The expansive portrait begins in the 1960s with Carlos (Edgar Ramirez) as a dissatisfied Marxist looking for some action to further his vague revolutionary ideals, and erratically canvases thirty years in its detached depiction of how this faux-revolutionary was really most committed to perpetuating the cult of his own personality.
Assayas chronicles Carlos' formative years with a relentless energy, bouncing around from one episode to the next as Carlos dips a toe (and then dives head-first) into the underground. The camera is almost always in motion while it watches Carlos spearhead various operations and bombings (Carlos - of course - is often at a safe distance from the violence), and Assayas' dogged desperation to keep up with his subject brilliantly exposes Carlos' actions as those of a man with a greater need for action than he does for meaning. Assayas has always displayed a great capacity for pulse-pounding action whenever he's afforded himself the chance to do so, and he has great fun punctuating Sanchez's transformation into Carlos with various raids, explosions, and naked women. And oh, the naked women. While Carlos eventually ties the knot with the most naked of them all (Nora von Waldstatten as the gorgeously feeling, feline, and ferocious Ms. Carlos), we blankly witness him indulge in enough hedonistic, James Bond-inspired behavior to be suspicious of the revolutionary ideals he spouts at his comrades and hostages.
So when Carlos relocates to a training camp in an arid Middle Eastern desert, it's not long before he's itching for all sorts of action. And it's that period of time during which the plan to raid OPEC was hatched, and Carlos' legacy was established in the criminal firmaments. And the OPEC raid - a 90-minute sequence that dominates the 2nd episode - is in and of itself the most exhilarating action cinema of the year. Jabbed by intermittent blasts of lite New Order punk (et al), the extended assault begins on a bus and eventually spans several different countries. It's bleeding over with suspense and rich character moments - Carlos' interplay with his hostage dignitaries is revelatory, but the passage builds towards a pivotal command Carlos gives to his own crew, a decision that underscores his entire persona and informs the rest of his life.
It's high-wire filmmaking leagues removed from Assayas' pleasantly torpid 'Summer Hours,' and it's placed squarely on the broad shoulders of Edgar Ramirez. The Venezuelan actor ('Vantage Point') looks like Roger Federer gone rogue, and dives into the role with sustained gusto, unafraid to portray Carlos as an unnervingly flat and dangerously vulnerable guy. Carlos makes for one of the most vain characters in recent cinema, and it's only because Ramirez is so quick to abandon his vanity as an actor that he's able to infuse the legend with the magnetic verve required to make an involving film about such a self-involved guy.
SPOILER ALERT: DETAILS OF THE FILM'S FINAL CHAPTER FOLLOW.
But as the third and final episode unfolds, Assayas' grasp of the material slackens just as Ramirez' performance is reaching its deepest (and fattest). Carlos hides from his pursuers by making a new (and often hilariously mundane) life for himself in Syria, and it's there that his mercurial and self-serving character really come to the fore, indelibly exposing the hugely human interior of a feared killer and agent of chaos. But Assayas has already so blissfully demystified his subject that Carlos' prolonged languor becomes redundant - the modest melodrama of his domestic situation effectively conveys the terrorist's sudden comedown from a career of mayhem, but on the heels of 4 adrenaline-packed hours the tonal shift is too soft to remain engaging. Carlos' various annoyances become more engaging as they become more mundane, but the political drama around his ultimate capture simply doesn't play (despite a wounding, ironic, and brilliant final beat). The unfortunate necrosis of the film's final chapter (which incidentally coincides with Nora von Waldstatten being uglied up) is something that might be remedied for the abbreviated cut IFC will be making available alongside the full release, but the brunt of the film's running time is absolutely essential.
Assayas humanizes the modern freedom-fighter in much the same fashion that Sofia Coppola's 'Marie Antoinette' provided royalty a dimensionality that the facts of history tend to forbid of its cinematic depictions. His 319-minute film is a revealing look at self-diagnosed purpose - political or otherwise - and just how quickly time renders heroes as martyrs, and exposes revolutionaries as egotists. 'Carlos' understands that history is made by people who we make into legends, and it lays that out with guns blazing.