Old-school ter­ror­ism

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Car­los, bio-epic, not rated, in English and seven other lan­guages with sub­ti­tles, The Screen, 4 chiles In 2009, di­rec­tor Olivier As­sayas gave Amer­i­can au­di­ences the haunt­ing fam­ily drama Sum­mer Hours. For his fol­low-up, the French di­rec­tor tack­les a project on a much big­ger scale, ex­am­in­ing two decades in the life of the Venezue­lan-born ter­ror­ist known as Car­los the Jackal (played by Édgar Ramírez). Pro­duced as a minis­eries for French tele­vi­sion, Car­los en­com­passes far more lo­ca­tions, eras, ac­tion se­quences, lan­guages, and plot twists than the av­er­age James Bond movie, but As­sayas han­dles such scope with the same at­ten­tion to de­tail that made Sum­mer Hours so mem­o­rable. He is a di­rec­tor ca­pa­ble of paint­ing in broad strokes but isn’t shy about get­ting out the soft brush to fill in de­tails.

As­sayas is able to flesh out themes and char­ac­ters be­cause he has the lux­ury of a 330-minute run­ning time, and it is also this flesh­ing out that makes those min­utes go by sur­pris­ingly quickly for the viewer. The film, which cov­ers Car­los’ life from an as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempt he per­formed for the Pop­u­lar Front for the Lib­er­a­tion of Pales­tine in 1973 un­til his ar­rest in 1994, is con­stantly in mo­tion and ex­pertly edited so that the days and years flow ef­fort­lessly into one an­other. As­sayas touches on many events in Car­los’ life in that span — events that are fic­tion­al­ized for le­gal and cre­ative rea­sons — but it never feels like he’s sim­ply run­ning down a check­list.

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Even as ter­ror­ists go, Car­los is too cal­lously dis­mis­sive of hu­man life to be sym­pa­thetic yet too va­pid to be a com­pelling an­ti­hero. He puts his life at risk and fights in the name of “the peo­ple,” yet he doesn’t come across as a hu­man­ist and is of­ten quick to set­tle for a hefty pay­check at the ex­pense of the cause. Out­side of vaguely name-drop­ping Karl Marx, he isn’t por­trayed as much of a philoso­pher, ei­ther. He is a sol­dier by his own def­i­ni­tion, and not a par­tic­u­larly good one. We of­ten re­late to him through his fail­ings — nearly ev­ery ter­ror­ist act he at­tempts go awry, yet he never gives up.

Still, he re­mains watch­able. Ramírez delivers an in­tensely com­mit­ted per­for­mance, even if it’s one that oc­ca­sion­ally finds us more en­gaged with the ac­tor than the char­ac­ter. He’s hand­some in a Val Kilmer kind of way and shows ex­cel­lent com­mand of the frame with­out chew­ing the scenery. Ramírez’s poker face and As­sayas’ sur­face-deep char­ac­ter ex­am­i­na­tion of­ten make Car­los serve as the axis which more in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ters — most promi­nently his great­est love, Mag­dalena Kopp (Nora von Wald­stät­ten) — re­volve around, but in a project with this much sprawl, that can of­ten be the way to go.

It was per­haps due to Ramírez’s pass­ing re­sem­blance to Kilmer that I of­ten thought of Kilmer’s 1991 film The Doors while watch­ing Car­los. As­sayas uses this sub­ject mat­ter to ex­plore the ter­ror­ist as rock star, and Car­los is sim­i­lar to Jim Mor­ri­son in sev­eral ways. He’s in­tel­li­gent with­out be­ing much of a thinker. He’s a celebrity more than any­thing else. His no­to­ri­ety trumps his medi­ocrity. Both men em­braced the iconic im­ages of their cho­sen pro­fes­sions — Car­los wears a blazer, turtle­neck, and beret in the fashion of rev­o­lu­tion­ary Che Gue­vara — to the point that they be­came pro­to­types for the ter­ror­ist or rock star, if not car­i­ca­tures. Both men have death wishes (which, due to their mas­sive egos, may more ac­cu­rately be de­scribed as mar­tyr com­plexes), and their mo­ti­va­tions are cloudy. One even won­ders if both men pur­sued their lines of work sim­ply to make it with women. In­deed, Car­los’ char­ac­ter arc is fre­quently re­flected through his man­hood and sex­u­al­ity. In the be­gin­ning, we see him strut around his apart­ment in the nude af­ter a bomb­ing, stop­ping to ad­mire his tan, fit body in the mir­ror. Later nude scenes are not so flat­ter­ing, as the fad­ing prom­ise of youth is cru­elly re­flected in his pale skin and bloated belly. His sex­ual en­coun­ters are pas­sion­ate and lov­ing through­out the film’s first few hours. By the end, they have be­come ugly. Fi­nally, just be­fore his ar­rest, he is hos­pi­tal­ized for surgery for a vari­cose vein on his gen­i­talia.

As­sayas, along with cin­e­matog­ra­phers De­nis Lenoir and Yorick Le Saux, presents the film in a gor­geously muted color pal­ette. Ma­jor shifts in set­ting come with static and stun­ning deep-fo­cus es­tab­lish­ing shots of the var­i­ous cities. It’s a mas­ter­piece of light­ing through­out, from the over­ex­posed ex­te­rior shots to the flu­o­res­cent lights that give the nar­ra­tive’s cen­ter­piece — a grip­ping, ex­tended ac­count of Car­los’ 1975 raid on the OPEC head­quar­ters at Vi­enna and the sub­se­quent kid­nap­ping and air­plane hi­jack­ing — an eerie pall.

The mu­sic is im­pec­ca­bly cho­sen and as eclec­tic as the var­i­ous set­tings and time pe­ri­ods re­quire. The sound­track ranges from 1960s Euro­pean psy­che­delic pop to gothic 1970s Krautrock to lively Latin gui­tar sin­ga­longs to rich Mid­dle East­ern com­po­si­tions. These songs are not overused to the point that it be­comes an as­sault on the senses but are rather strate­gi­cally de­ployed to evoke mood and set­ting and to keep the film mov­ing at a brisk pace.

Through these sounds; the Po­laroid-like, washed-out col­ors; and ex­haus­tively de­tailed work by the art di­rec­tion team, Car­los of­ten feels like an ex­er­cise in nostal­gia. It is with a strange sense of a loss of in­no­cence that we see how easy it once was for peo­ple to bring a rocket launcher into an air­port. It’s sad to re­al­ize that the no­tion of bring­ing power to the peo­ple, once cool and sexy, now seems as an­ti­quated as bell-bot­tom jeans. The tim­ing of the film’s re­lease in Santa Fe is in­ter­est­ing, as news footage from Cairo re­calls the Tianan­men Square protests or the fall of the Ber­lin Wall in 1989 (the lat­ter of which is en­er­get­i­cally evoked in Car­los). As­sayas doesn’t re­motely li­on­ize Car­los or glo­rify ter­ror­ism, but he doc­u­ments the winds of change with a panache that makes you wish they hadn’t died down.

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