When “Carlos” arrived at the Cannes Film Festival in May, it was dubbed a masterpiece long before its first screening, and easily fulfilled expectations when it dominated the day of its premiere. Olivier Assayas’s sprawling five-and-a-half hour chronicle of the famed Venezuelan terrorist born Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, who was apprehended by French authorities in 1994, pleased audiences because it clearly earned the epic running time. The Los Angeles Times deemed it “‘The Bourne Identity’ with more substance or ‘Munich’ with more of a pulse,” which basically meant it felt both fun and contemplative — often at the same time.
Nobody can deny the merits of the intellectual thriller Assays has created, but let’s come down to Earth for a second. “Carlos” features an impressively controlled performance by leading man Edgar Ramirez, a flair for the period of global unrest in which it takes place (mainly the mid-1970s), and a swift pace that carries it through in nearly every scene. It’s an imminently watchable biopic, occasionally hampered by histrionic strategic babbling delivering at hyperspeed, but generally sustained by Assayas’s tight directorial control over the vast two-decade period of Sánchez’s career.
The core of the movie’s appeal comes from individual moments illustrating its flawed protagonist’s psyche. His inability to reconcile a sincere desire to lead the charge of guerilla warfare and satisfy his ego provides the arc; a handful of substantial nail-biting sequences hold it together. The 325-minute cut, originally created to air on French television in three parts, delivers those ingredients with an agreeable flow. That version, however, has been released in American theaters at the same time as a shorter theatrical cut that, at two hours and forty-five minutes, still has plenty of heft. Let’s say your schedule is tight and you opt to cut corners by checking out the truncated option. Do you still get the gist of the “Carlos” experience?
The answer is a definite yes. All the main ingredients of the narrative remain intact, as do the highlights of Ramirez’s performance. The journey through Sánchez’s ups and downs is not as expansive, and some of the missing scenes take away from the relentlessness of his self-motivated battle to stay in the game. Fortunately, the two scenes fraught with the greatest amount of suspense have not been excised: Sanchez’s close call with the French police in the close quarters of an apartment, in addition to the prolonged hostage situation he engineered in 1975 with the elaborate kidnapping of OPEC oil ministers.
The latter event consumes a significant portion of the movie, and appropriately so, as it offers an economical portrait of Sánchez’s leadership strengths and flaws. He’s serious, driven, and passionate about his anti-Zionist cause; at the same time, he’s a bombastic celebrity hungry for the spotlight. Part of the experience involves figuring out whether he’s worth the sympathy we have to give him since nearly whole movie inhabits his perspective.
“Carlos” also deserves to be seen within the context of Assayas’s diverse filmography, since it functions as a hybrid of his efficient genre exercises and restrained character studies by oscillating between chatter and action. You get to know Ramirez, like him or not. In this acquaintance emerges a cinematic intimacy that frees “Carlos” from the political leanings of its subject and turns it into a study of human fragility. In spite of his flaws, Ramirez does not emerge as a tragic figure. He’s less ideological warrior than wannabe tyrant — undone, as a former flame puts it at one point, by “bourgeois arrogance hidden behind revolutionary rhetoric.” Whether seen at over five hours or just under three, the movie ably grapples with that clash of values from start to finish.