'Carlos' is the incredibly detailed portrait of one of the world's most reprehensible men, the Venezuelan revolutionist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, or as he is more famously known, "Carlos the Jackal." The man isn't simply hated for his crimes of terrorism, which spanned two decades and several countries, but looking back at his life and his involvement with certain organizations, he is also despised for playing a stealthy role in acts of violence that have had an effect on history. And so it is this aspect of the abhorred man's life which intrigues us most is the real subject of Olivier Assayas's exhaustive epic on the rise and fall of a so-called freedom fighter.
The film was initially conceived as a typical 90-minute biopic, concentrating primarily on Sánchez's bizarre capture in Sudan, where he was tricked by the very people he trusted to protect him. But while researching the story with unprecedented access to several secret intelligence files, Assayas discovered a wealth of information that would be impossible to cover in a short amount of time. Working with co-writer Dan Franck, the director was allowed to expand on the original concept and take a more in-depth look at a man believed to be the world's most dangerous criminal. The result was a five and a half hour film, which was shown as a three-part TV miniseries with a 140-minute edited version for theaters in the U.S., essentially leading up to the arrest of the notorious terrorist.
In effect, it appears Assayas aims to explore the life of an individual so reviled that it's difficult to imagine him as anything else, but as we discover in the first part of what is basically a film trilogy, Carlos was intelligent, educated, well-read, and a man uncompromisingly committed to his beliefs. Although we commence with him being taken under Wadie Haddad's wing in the PFLP, the focus is actually on Sánchez as a young idealist, believing strongly in fighting his cause. We also see he's a bit of an egotistical playboy, loving the attention he receives whenever he meets a beautiful woman.
The film's stars Édgar Ramírez as Carlos the Jackal, and he is marvelous in his portrayal, providing a remarkable performance of a rather frightening individual. Ramírez terrifically balances the arrogance and self-confidence Sánchez is known for with small hints of a man suddenly unsure of what to do next when trouble arises, hastily acting on his decisions nonetheless with little thought of the consequences. Ramírez is amazing to watch, giving the character a calm and collective attitude that's alarming but also reveals slivers of uneasiness in the heat of the moment. Along with the narrative, filmmakers are humanizing and demystifying the monster not by altering him into a sympathetic figure, but by exposing Sánchez as full of flaws and imperfections.
Part one is clearly intent on portraying this aspect of his life as we slowly watch his rise to notoriety, a simple idealist in search of someone to sponsor him. Carlos the Jackal participates in several bombing attempts, including one stupidly bumbled attack at Orly Airport, before his name suddenly becomes infamous for the murder of an informant and two DST agents. By ending the first chapter with the planning of the hostage takeover of OPEC, the filmmakers basically give audiences the gradual transformation of a political idealist into a radical terrorist. Part two starts with that hostage situation, but is actually more concerned with the politics surrounding Sánchez and how he came to form his own organization. It's quite fascinating to see this man from Latin America grow in stature as he works for the Iraqis, Syrians, Lebanese, the Stasi and even the KGB.
Assayas's direction is somewhat restrained but efficient, creating an observer's eye to detail while only delivering the relevant information necessary for achieving the plot's conclusion. As we go into part three, his approach becomes more apparent and increasingly more distant, almost in documentarian style. It seems as if he's being careful not to paint Carlos in a compassionate light since the final chapter outlines the man's downfall. Now, as the leader of his own group with sleeper cells all across Europe, Carlos's arrogance and confidence begins to get the better of him. He is no longer the revolutionary idealist seen earlier. He's been transformed into an international mercenary and arms dealer with wealth and power. But with the fall of the Berlin Wall, Carlos loses relevancy along with everything else, eventually captured in rather unspectacular, unglamorous fashion.
'Carlos' is an extraordinary film series, carefully detailing the life and crimes of a truly awful human being. He may have started as a revolutionist with passionate ideals and conviction to his beliefs, but in the end, as the three-part movie shows, he morphed into a criminal who dangerously saw innocent lives and bystanders as acceptable casualties for his cause. Through Assaya's direction and narrative skills, we are both fascinated by the man as well as horrified by his actions. Édgar Ramírez's performance as Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, a.k.a Carlos the Jackal, is equally remarkable, making the trilogy one of the most astonishing motion pictures about terrorism we've ever seen. 'Carlos' is comprehensive, captivating and comes with an awesome soundtrack.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This Blu-ray edition of 'Carlos (2010)' comes courtesy of The Criterion Collection (spine #582) as a two-disc package with a cardboard slipcover and a very minimal but elegant cover design. The 5 1/2 hour film is spread across two Region A locked, BD50 discs and housed on opposing panels inside a gatefold plastic tray. Also included is a 40-page booklet with stills from the movie and a wealth of information. It features two insightful essays entitled "Sudden Death" by film professor Colin MacCabe and "What the Film Wanted" by film author Greil Marcus. The booklet also comes with a detailed timeline on the life of Ilich Ramírez Sánchez and short biographies on key figures. There are no trailers or promos before being taken to the distributor's normal menu options.
According to the accompanying booklet, this new 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode was struck from the 35mm 2-perf negative. The process was supervised by cinematographers Yorick Le Saux and Denis Lenoir and approved by director Olivier Assayas. Presented in the director's preferred 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the freshly-minted transfer looks excellent and precisely as filmmakers intended, with a 70s vintage aesthetic that favors secondary hues, especially gold-amber and browns. The rest of the palette is rendered with a natural, true-to-life façade, and the colors are quite bold and flamboyant, considering the other aspects.
The picture can have a slightly more dour mood from time to time, which again is part of the film's deliberate photography and looks more attractive than distracting. When traveling through many of the European countries, there's a bleak grayish tone about the image, but everything changes to warmer yellows while in the Middle East to better reflect the climate. These variations hardly affect definition and resolution, which is beautifully detailed with fine, distinct lines in architecture and clothing. Facial complexions also remain healthy and revealing throughout, especially in close-ups.
Contrast, on the other hand, alternates quite a bit between scenes, sometimes appearing crisp and spot-on while other times coming off hot. This could also be part of the intention as it seems diffusion filters are used often during those moments. Black levels also tend to fluctuate, looking very nice and deep is several sequences. In many interior shots and a few nighttime scenes, they can look murky and weak, creating shadows that severely overwhelm background info. In the end, though, the high-def video is rather outstanding and first-rate, considering its five and a half hour run.
For the audio, Criterion has also made a new digital soundtrack from the original master files, and it sounds pretty fantastic on this Blu-ray release.
As mentioned above, I'm already a fan of the film's song selections, so listening to those tunes on DTS-HD Master Audio is a wonderful treat. The music spreads evenly across the screen to create a very wide imaging with excellent fidelity. The songs lightly bleed into the back speakers, offering an attractive immersive effect though not overwhelming. The echoes of gunfire and explosions can also be heard in the background from time to time, enhancing the soundfield and keeping viewers engaged. These are ultimately the more impressive moments of rear activity with a few scattered instances of atmospherics, which is fine since the design seems intentional as a good stereo presentation.
The rest of the lossless mix is carried by the front soundstage, displaying excellent balance and channel separation. Vocals are well-prioritized and precise, making every whispered word and tonal inflection perfectly audible. The mid-range exhibits outstanding frequency response, handling the sudden eruptions of violence brilliantly and with terrific clarity detail. The low-end also is accurate and appropriate without calling too much attention to itself, providing depth and realism to the action. Most all of the concentration in 'Carlos' is understandably focused on the dialogue with a few spurts of intense activity, and this high-rez track delivers on that with aplomb, one fans will surely enjoy.
Criterion provides a great assortment of supplements spread across two discs and matching its DVD counterpart, giving owners a chance to learn more not only about the production but also of the real-life people portrayed in the film.
'Carlos (2010)' is a three-part film series that traces the rise and fall of one of history's most notorious criminals in exhaustive detail. It never paints Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, a.k.a. Carlos the Jackal, in a sympathetic light or in any way that would inspire admiration. All three films are blunt and matter-of-fact as they intriguingly humanize his personality flaws and demystify the man who once terrorized the world from the late 70s and throughout the 1980s. The Criterion Blu-ray arrives in an elegant two-disc package with an excellent audio and video presentation and features a splendid wealth of supplements. This is definitely one to pick up for Criterion collectors and highly recommended for history buffs or those simply fascinated by these particular years in world history.