It is impossible to have a discussion of Oliver Assayas’s Carlos without talking about its monstrous 330 minutes of length. There just aren’t that many movies that ask you sit still for five and a half hours. Like a good long novel, this allows the authors an exceptional amount of time with the characters – a gift for any storyteller. But that gift can also be a poison as it sets the bar for approval so much higher. Is the indulgence justifiable? Is this world worth spending so much time in? Are these characters worth the commitment?
In this case the character is a classic antihero. Carlos “The Jackal” was a notorious criminal who inflicted terror across Western Europe during the last two decades of the Cold War. His world is a place of conviction to a belief that he is fighting for a better society – but also a place of hubris; that only he can deliver that society to the hungry masses.
Edgar Ramirez, a Venezuelan, is given the role of his life in the shoes of his fellow countryman. At times he shines. The early scenes in which Carlos is filled with a political zeal that overflows onto his cadre of followers are particularly moving. At other times, Ramirez falls short – as seen in the more introspective Carlos of his latter years. I found the film at its most interesting when it explores the politics of running the terrorist organization. A good section of the film is devoted to the logistics of funding and housing such a group. At times it is a rare and fascinating view into the secret police offices behind the iron curtain – a place not a lot of films have so expertly explored.
To be accurate, Carlos isn’t really one five and a half hour movie, but three much more normally sized movies. It originally aired in Europe over three nights and even made a quick Sundance Channel appearance in that form last October (although that flew below my radar). My guess is that most film fans watched it as I did – in one long sitting. Unfortunately, you just can’t get away from judging the film based on this format. Simply put, there are many other films I would have rather spent that much time with (a five and a half hour version of A Prophet? Hell yeah!). Carlos is an interesting and at times entertaining film, but it is really, really long.