For almost a decade now, we have been treated to the best and most artistic television that has ever been produced. Earlier this year, I wrote about the great Red Riding Trilogy and, if anything, Carlos is even better. Following the meteoric rise and tragic fall of the most dangerous man in the international community, we see more than just an interesting historical figure. We see a man beset on all sides by self-doubt, self-loathing, anxiety and fear, a man easy to condemn and hard to sympathize with. But we see a man in his entirety, and we come to at least understand him, even if it is hard to forgive him.
Last year, when I caught Summer Hours by Olivier Assayas, I was stunned at how this family saga had been transformed by politics and national boundaries as each member moved to a different part of the world. So when I heard that a 5 and a half hour biopic on the world’s most famous terrorist (before Osama bin Laden) I was rather stoked, seeing as how it would invoke the same themes of globalisation in a post-national world.
We follow Carlos as he rises to the top of a terrorist group and leads an attack on the OPEC meeting, in 1975. This is the moment when Carlos was catapulted to international fame and celebrity, and in the film, its gravity is evident. We watch as his plans, foolproof at first, slowly unravel in a sequence that lasts almost the length of a film in itself. This scene alone is worth the price of a rental, as its displays amazing feats of filmmaking. After Carlos returns home, he is kicked out of the terrorist group and forms his own. The criticism levied against him is that he is no longer fighting for any cause, he is fighting for Carlos.
This is the crux of the film, the central theme. Carlos becomes obsessed with his own status on the international scene. He becomes ensorcelled by the idea of someone shaking in their boots upon realizing he has come for them. The power is intoxicating, and he knows it is no illusion. People fear him.
That fear is vital to carrying out various missions, but it also means that there is something else he fights for. He sees himself as valuable, with reason, but in a system that promotes suicide bombings and complete devotion to the cause, self-preservation isn’t a priority. While I’m unsure that his pride quite gets to the level of hubris, he is certainly brought down by it.
It is almost as if there are two parts to Carlos. One that we see, the side of external charisma. Carlos has a physical, even sexual presence when he walks into a room, and that is undeniable. But this is the “image” of Carlos, because he can also be seen deep in his thoughts, leading an enigmatic internal existence. He reveals little of himself to others, only displaying that which feeds the fame monster.
Edgar Ramirez’s performance as this larger-than-life individual is stunning. It is nuanced and brash, unrestrained and austere. His performance is made of a wealth of contradictions, which is entirely appropriate for the man being portrayed.
The soundtrack of the film (which has gotten me listening to more and more New Order) is entirely composed of New Wave tracks. Wire and, as I mentioned, New Order make up the music to some of the more iconic scenes, but The Feelies were also used for a scene or two. This seemed strange to me when I first heard about it, but in watching it, the soundtrack is just another of the strong attributes this film carries with it.
Just about every aspect of this film works in tandem with the rest. The cinematography is perfect, the acting is spot on, the script resounds and stays with you, and the decadence of the art-punk and New Wave tracks parallel the path of the titular character. For its length, it might seem like a mountain, an arduous task, that one must overcome. But time flies by when the action is as well-paced as this, and if you have to watch it in a few sittings it’ll still be worth it. Carlos is one of the best films of the year, and perhaps more than any other on that list, it challenges us to think actively about what motivates us, what drives us to action, but more importantly, what makes us human. Carlos is not just an anarchist who lives to destroy. He is a man, a man consumed by hate and fear, but also a man who seeks to be understood before his real self is completely forgotten and he remains a name in a history book, remembered only for his atrocious acts.