Carlos is a fascinating exploration of one man’s continued revolutionary efforts in freeing Palestine. Both arresting and absorbing, Olivier Assayas’s film spans decades, countless countries and utilises a heady mix of languages.
Available in an array of formats (having been made into a trilogy of films that equate a five and a half hour run time as well as being a slightly more manageable and cinema-friendly two hour and forty minute film), Carlos tells the story of one man’s struggle against the bourgeois and what they stand for, documenting his ongoing attempts to bring revolution to the fore of seventies and eighties politics.
In commenting on the troubles that plagued the middle east in the later decades of the twentieth century, Carlos is a film that is extremely poignant in modern-day cinema. With characters whispering that Carlos’s work won him the admiration of Saddam Hussein, the film is subtly aware of the age in which it has been produced – a balance few films can fully achieve. The fine line between revolution and terrorism is tackled with major characters suffering emotional battles, having to draw a line between what is right and what is wrong; an important line to draw when lives are at stake, it is fascinating watching the conflict argued. Inevitably Carlos’s fellow revolutionaries begin to doubt their course, with some embracing increasing militancy, but his ideals stand true. With the film’s characters voicing lines such as ‘war cant be won by picketing’ and ‘words get us nowhere. It’s time for action’ the film’s poignancy is underlined. The mixing of conscience and arrogance strengthens the portrayal of Carlos and plays out on the backdrop of assassinations, bombs and hostage-takings.
Carlos is both slick and well-produced. The contrast between light and dark shots reinforces the inner-turmoil faced by many of the film’s key players whilst the news footage that intersperses the more fictional scenes adds a docu-feel to the film. Used to particularly good effect when Carlos and his group take hostages at an important international conference they remind viewers that what they are watching is in fact based on true events. Itself perhaps the crux of both the film and Carlos’s career, the hostage-taking allows there to be a role-call of key players in the dispute over Palestine, cluing viewers in and sharpening their awareness of the struggles experienced at the time. Bringing the blurred division between right and wrong to the fore, the hostage-taking itself splits opinion amongst the Armed Wing of the Arab Revolution and Carlos finds himself ostracised for opting for brains rather than brutality (or money over honour as some of his more scorned fellows believe). The passage of time presented in the film is not only believable, but is also integral to the story. The only drawback the film suffers from in terms of production (apart from its unattractive length) is purely to do with aesthetics – some of the fonts used through the film are hard to distinguish and some are not on-screen long enough.
The nudity present in the film serves two main purposes; for one it allows the passing of time and the men’s mental states to be assessed – when Carlos is almost exiled he puts on weight and almost abandons his soldier physique. Secondly it reminds audiences that Carlos is, despite what anyone thinks of him or his actions, still a man and suffers human frailties. His nonchalance about weaponry, using a grenade in an almost sex-toy fashion at one point, and proclamations that weapons are merely extensions of his body either show how at ease he is with the idea of brutality or are intricate screens for him to hide his true beliefs behind.
Enthralling and hugely captivating, Carlos will, despite its run-time, have you engrossed. Having said this however, although the film provides top quality acting as well as an intricate and well-paced storyline, a word of warning must be given before anyone flippantly tunes in; despite having immersed yourself in Carlos’s world for hours, the man remains an ambiguity. Édgar Ramírez excels in pouring an endless amount of humanity into the part but also, rather amazingly, succeeds in providing a character who the audience still know nothing about. With fellow characters referring to him as an ‘historical curiosity’ and a ‘phantom’ (a has-been and a no-longer-is), the years of research undertaken into Carlos’s life before filming began did not produce a polished biographical piece which makes for a more fascinating piece. Instead of being given a film that professes to provide all the answers, audiences are presented with a film that does the exact opposite. Warning audiences of the inclusion of fictional elements in the film, Carlos is many things; highly educational, a political statement of our times and an exploration into the ambiguous and fascinating life of a man who went by the name of Carlos Martinez.