Olivier Assayas’ Carlos is built on a framework of real people and actual events still in the memories of many viewers, with some of the characters still alive and in prison. The events and the characters are both larger than life and real, giving this partially fictionalized history a global scope and a resonance beyond its scenes.
WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS
The audacity of the OPEC raid and the messiness of the subsequent country-hopping on a donated plane could hardly have been played for higher stakes and it seems as incredible now as it must have done at the time. The true masterstroke of the terrorist attack was that the hostages were VIPs – international representatives. Subsequent hijackings were ruthlessly crushed in military raids by the Israelis and others – we hear of these in the film, and we’re led to believe that their failure was due to the absence of Carlos after his suspension by his terrorist boss. But the real reason was surely that those later hostages were ordinary people who could be killed in a special forces storming without a second thought. Carlos was protected by the importance of the hostages in his raid.
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Some scenes are shot with a kind of monochromic blur behind the characters – the background flooded in yellow or ochre. I don’t remember seeing an effect quite like that in a film before. There are so many shots of so many rooms in so many countries, and the décor speaks as loudly as the characters in every bar, Parisian apartment and sheik’s palace … the coloured cushions, the vinyl seats, the airport check-in desks.
Édgar Ramírez heads up a huge and effective cast. His Carlos is a complex and evolving character, tossed on waves of idealism, greed and vanity. There is an ambivalence about the character Carlos, who is seen by many of his followers as a revolutionary hero in the mould of Che Guevara, and by others in the film as a brutal and evil terrorist. The cool post-punk soundtrack is a mistake in this context because it collapses the ambivalence into straightforward glamour too many times. It’s one thing when Sofia Coppola sets her film to a mix-tape of her favourite indie bands, but her subject matter is cool and glossy so it matches up. The soundtrack leaves an uncomfortable feeling in Carlos.
Perhaps the most shocking thing about Carlos is how much the world has changed in the short time since the events of the film. Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, a pre-Arab Spring Egypt, a Syria without barrel and phosphorus bombs. These dictators and countries had a terrifying and intractable character in the 1970s but it’s hard to escape the thought that today things are even worse.
Personal Score: 8/10
This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on the BBC's Top 21st Century films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.
For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.