The Decades of Carlos

Official Cannes poster for Olivier Assayas' "Carlos"

It does not take much endurance to watch the five-and-half hours of Olivier Assayas’ uncut, original version of Carlos.  In fact, I watched every minute of it (well, almost every minute of it) with bated breath and alert eyes and ears.  When the two intermissions came, I wanted them to end quickly so we could return to the narrative. (I saw the film at Coolidge Corner Theater, the non-profit cinema in Brookline, MA.., which is one of my city’s great institutions for cinema lovers).

The IFC has prepared a very informative booklet which has everything from political background of the Carlos decades; to interviews with Assayas and his collaborators; to a rather condescending Village Voice review by J. Hoberman, which is meant to serve as one of the two critical centerpieces of the entire context of this film but which does not add much of substance to the subject; to the lists of those who were involved in the film.

This last section, especially the list of actors/characters, is the most useful because it contains all the major political actors of the Carlos decades.  The characters from the Middle East region–and especially the mercurial Wadie Haddad of the PFLP–are rendered with a novelist’s touch.  Their comportment, their quirks, their use of the Arabic language, their flaws are brought to the screen with a meticulous precision. Assayas’ cast portrays them all as individuals caught in the sweep and rush of events, ideologies and larger geopolitical realities.  They are also hemmed in by their own psychological limitations and flaws.  This is one of the great achievements of the film.  And while I doubt that Carlos will generate much public discussion (it is, after all, being shown in art houses across the country), its portrayal of Arab cities, characters and the Arabic they speak is instructive; it is free of stereotypes, easy answers to complex questions, and a priori indictments.

With close to two dozen memorable characters, spanning across three continents and speaking half a dozen languages, Carlos is a work of epic proportions.  There is, of course, a lot of violence, and a lot of sex, but there’s also the music and dancing and evocation of place and culture, all of which is subsumed under a very strong narrative line that stretches from Beirut to Khartoom to Paris to Aden, to Tripoli, and beyond. For all the editing and technical bravura, Assayas manages to create something close to the real thing–in his characters, in the places where Carlos seeks support or shelter, and in the revolutionary rhetoric of the Carlos decades. Perhaps this is because of the length of the film, which was conceived as a television series for Canal+.  Assayas uses the luxury afforded him with great economy and technical skill, but also with something akin to the writer’s approach.  He develops characters carefully, paying great attention to detail but also to landscape and ideology and expressive inflection. In the hands of a lesser film-maker, all this material would have been reduced, made simplistic, even silly.  But not here.

The story takes as its  background the period from the early 1970s when Carlos,  the notorious Venezuella-born international terrorist of the 1970s, 80s, who has languished in a Paris jail since 1994, gets his training in the Palestinian guerilla camps of Jordan, to the early 1990s  when Carlos is captured by the French intelligence services. On the purely informative level, Carlos is a work of encyclopedic proportions and relevance, giving us a short overview of the ideological and geopolitical forces that sustained revolutionary acts of terror for such a long time.  And while the Carlos decades are over for sure, the central impetus for Carlos’ activities–the Palestinian issue– is far from being resolved. Add to that the fact that Carlos tried to fashion himself in the legacy of the South American revolutionary traditions. These traditions are still alive in South American politics though they have taken different forms recently.  Assayas makes no judgment, takes no side. But the breath of the film speaks volumes of what persists beyond the fire of violence and the afterglow of the end.

In the twilight of revolutionary glow, when ideals have turned to ashes, the easiest thing to do is wear the attitude of cynicism, to turn the main character into a caricature.  This is the great temptation of a film such as Carlos, and here is its other contribution.  Assayas resists the easy way out. Instead, he pursues the central question with unrelenting focus:  Who was Carlos?  In the end, the answer to this question is illusive, but some truths emerge.

For all his energy and boldness, Carlos lacks discipline, the kind of terrifying discipline embodied in Haddad, for instance.  He mistakes discipline with domination, with hierarchy–with him at the top, of course.  He drinks, smokes, pursues and conquers women while trying to be a full-time revolutionary.  The absence of this sort of discipline magnifies all his flaws: his love of fame, his narcissitic preoccupation with his sexuality and with his looks, his inability to stand back and think through a crisis, his preoccupation with himself, with the good life.  Without discipline, he merely reacts to events and sinks deeper into nihilism and rhetorical flourish.  Even in the end, when his German comrade, drunk and stoned and exhausted, admits that it is all over, Carlos continues on, blind and blinded, bereft of idealism and fervor, until he is a drugged mass being hauled on a plane bound for Paris.

It is, again, easy to find a morality tale in the life and end of Carlos, but Assayas does not go there.  He stays close to the bone, close to the action (and this is a film saturated with action).  Because the characters that he has brought to us are portrayed with such detail and precision, their fate is full of pathos.  But we do not leave the theatre feeling morally triumphant muttering to ourselves, “See, violence does not pay. Violence wrecks lives, eats its children.”  No self-righteousness, here.  But neither are we cynical or ambivalent about Carlos and his crimes, but something else which, like Carlos’ life, is illusive and worthy of further reflection, from a distance.

But like Carlos himself, Carlos is not without its limitations and flaws. It relies too much on action and not enough on depth.  The film gives us beautifully constructed interior scenes, from the Yemen headquarters of Haddad to those of the Sudanese Sheikh Tourabi to the South American emigré communities of Paris, to scenes of wild dancing and revelry.  All this is fine and good as entertainment, but sometimes it feels overdone, excessive, bordering on making the horrific beautiful and fun. One can explain this by saying that in this the film mirrors Carlos’ own limitations and excesses.  If the film feels like a show at times, the argument goes, it’s because for Carlos, it was all a grand happening, a long trail of blood and puke and bodily fluids meant to satisfy his insatiable hunger for celebrity and fame.  That’s the cynic’s view. The moralist would be outraged and would demand that Assayas should have meditated on the loss of innocent lives.  But Carlos‘ path is neither that of moral indignation nor cynicism.  The larger question , then, is an esthetic one:  Can the film create a third way, a third path with such incendiary material?

Update: November 20, 2010:  This weekend’s CounterPunch features a review of Carlos, by Richard Estes, titled “Carlos:an Orientalist Masterpiece.”

November 28, 2010: Angry Arab has a critique of “Carlos.”

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About Taline Voskeritchian

Writing teacher at Boston University; translator (from Arabic and Armenian); prose writer; occasional editor; incurable wanderer.
This entry was posted in Cinéphilia, Cities and towns, Palestinians and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Decades of Carlos

  1. D James says:

    Hi Taline, I saw it too–at Grauman’s Chinese Egyptian–was totally engrossed for the five+ hours–xoxdj

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