Directed by: Olivier Assayas
Starring: Édgar Ramírez; Alexander Scheer; Nora von Waldstätten; Ahmad Kaabour; Christoph Bach; Susanne Wuest; Anna Thalbach; Julia Hummer
Country: France, Germany
Release date: 19 May 2010 (Cannes Film Festival)
Running time: Original version 330 minutes; Theatrical version 140 minutes
There was a time when cinema was essentially a local product. Okay, we can talk about its universal quality and how true art transcends boundary and so on, creative cinema was essential local, which would spring from the mind of an individual, the auteur, and would be informed by a specific time-and-space reality. You cannot discuss a Satyajit Ray picture without the effects of communist West Bengal, which was Ray’s home. Likewise, all Ingmer Bergman are essentially Swedish and are seeped in the director’s religious/spiritual crisis. And, Andrei Tarkovsky’s greatest films are those made while he was a Russian in Russia.
Nowadays, or shall we say, post 9/11, when the globalised world suddenly became a terrible place to live, and the sense of individual and collective security, especially in the First World, was lost forever, there has been a tendency of the first and the second worlds to understand their third counterpart. We can argue whether it stems from the so-called ‘white man’s burden’ or something else altogether, but there’s no denying the fact that the first world is going all out to understand their ‘inferior’ counterpart, and no, it’s not the love for exotica, but something else altogether. Therefore, Danny Boyle’s tale of the seedy underbelly in Mumbai is more hard-hitting than the romantic India the West wants to maintain.
In the recent years, suddenly we have so many pictures, especially from Europe and Scandinavia, where the white protagonist is emotionally entangled in a third world country, somewhere in the African continent, or middle east post gulf war, or India (and I am not talking about The Constant Gardenar or Eat, Pray, Love, where the third world country is just a scenic background, a plot device). I am sure there are many more films where geographical reality blurs and something else emerges, like the story of two Americans in Tokyo in Lost in Translation. An early example of the trend can be Fatih Akin’s The Edge of Heaven, where a German girl follows her Turkish girlfriend to Istambul and gets killed, while the girl’s mother finds redemption in settling in Turkey.
Susanne Bier’s In A Better World, which won the Oscar for best foreign language film in 2010, travels between affluent Denmark and impoverish Sudan, and tells the same story of human atrocity, played out by two sets of very different people. The idea seems to prove that beneath the tags of nationality, economy and race, we are all the same, vicious and cruel and also capable of love. Bier’s early film, After the Wedding (2006), which was nominated for an Oscar, begins and ends in India, though the country has no apparent connection to the main plotline of the film.
The Quebec film Incendies, which was also in the race for Oscar this year, moves between Canada and a middle eastern country, perhaps Lebanon, to tell the story of two second generation immigrants’ search for the identity of their mother.
Perhaps, no other film embraces this new trend and makes it fulfilling and relevant than Oliver Assayas’ ambitious epic Carlos, undoubtedly the best film produced in 2010. With the running time of 330 minutes (later, 140 minutes version was released in theatres ), divided into three parts, it’s a made for TV film, which more or less encompasses all the current trends of movie-making, a politically conscious vision which sees things not in black and white but in grey. The films tells the story of the rise of the notorious criminal Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, better known to the world as Carlos the Jackal, a convicted Venezuelan terrorist, who was once among the most wanted international fugitives, who achieved notoriety for a 1975 raid on the OPEC headquarters in Vienna. The film painfully recreates the ideology and violence of 1970s. What makes the film truly international is the plotline that moves around the globe, from Venezuela to Israel to England, France, Germany, and then Sudan, and how effortlessly it switches from one language to another — English, French, Spanish, German, Hebrew, Japanese, there are at least half a dozen of languages spoken on screen, conveyed to us through subtitles.
It’s not an easy task to make a film on a defined villain without making it opinionated and one-sided. Recently, French actor Vincent Cassel stared as Jacques Mesrine, another notorious criminal in the two part Mesrine. Both the films are wonderful to look at, filled by the charisma of Cassel’s star turn, and contains visceral scenes of violence, but at the end, the films observe the personality of Mesrine from the outside. The audience never gets a chance to empathise with the protagonist.
Even Carlos, the film, looks at the protagonist from the outside; yet it tries to understand the volatile personality of Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, who begins as an Marxist ideologist and turns into a mercenary for other terrorist groups. Apart from this, what the film does is to take its audience to the thick of the action, and make them decide for themselves. The film is more interested in showing how then why, and it succeeds, among other things, because of the central performance of another Ramírez, Édgar Ramírez. The way Ramírez, who like the character he plays, also from Venezuela, plays Carlos, is a lesson in film acting. He brings forth the in-your-face and never-say-die attitude with panache to the screen that makes Carlos believable. It’s not only the exterior, (Carlos changes his appearance and size several times as the film goes from one time slot to another, and you can actually see the changes in Ramírez) but how Carlos becomes more and more complex and how more and more he moves from the ideology he started out with.
Carlos is an important film not only because it’s a masterpiece of cinematic creation, but it is also a testimony of the time, a series of events that practically changed the world we have inherited today.