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'Carlos' turns the story of the Jackal into a morality tale

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 11, 2010 - Although he's the most significant filmmaker to emerge from France in thepast 15 years or so, Olivier Assayas is a difficult man to categorize. He's made films that capture the rhythms of ordinary life and invite comparisons to Eric Rohmer (the recent "Summer Hours" is perhaps the best example), but he's also drawn to surreal mashups of genre films, eurothrillers ("Boarding Gate") and paranoid suspense ("Demonlover") plots.

At their most extreme, these latter films,dark and sometimes incoherent, suggested an affinity with the "New French Extremity," restrained only by their intellectual complexity and Assayas' gift for stretching the abilities of his cast.

If "Summer Hours" was a quiet step away from the frenetic material of Assayas' other recent work, his latest film "Carlos" returns to a loud, violent world, but with a new maturity. It's a rigorous blend of political thriller, crime film and psychological drama, an ambitious epic - it would not be too much of an exaggeration to call it Assayas' "Godfather" - that ranks as his finest film yet, and one of the year's best.

"Carlos" tells the story of Ilich Sanchez, the Venezuelan-born terrorist better known as "the Jackal" (although the film never uses that name) who was, for much of the '70s and '80s, the most notorious political criminal in the world. Following his path from his involvement with Palestinian groups in the early '70s to his arrest in 1994, when the Cold War had ended and his services were becoming an embarrassment to many of his previous allies.

Originally shown on television (but shot in widescreen) the film is something of a hybrid. Divided into three feature length episodes, but with more structural unity that a traditional mini-series, it's more like a three-act play - or a triple feature. (The uncut three-part version will be aired on the Sundance channel over three nights beginning next Monday. A 165 minute version will be released theatrically and on cable on-demand services later this month - but you'll really want to avoid that and see the full five-hour version.)

Though it provides a broad overview of the political climate over three decades, Assayas' film doesn't rest on any specific ideological position. (It's not pro- or anti- terrorism, any more than "The Godfather" is a polemic for or against organized crime.)

It's a morality tale, the story of a man who lets whatever political idealism he might originally have held become corrupted by fame, power and his own egotism. More than anything else, the film keeps a brisk pace, most of it resting on the shoulders of Edgar Ramirez, the actor who plays Carlos. On screen in nearly every scene and required to act at least a half-dozen different languages, he gives a fearless performance, convincingly embodying Carlos' slow transformation from a no-nonsense ideologue to the pudgy narcissist/mercenary he becomes.

The tipping point in Carlos career -- the moment that pushes him over the edge from obedient soldier to celebrity terrorist living on handouts from the likes of Muammar Gadaffi -- is his 1975 attack on OPEC's headquarters in Vienna. Assigned to assassinate two OPEC members believed to be sympathetic to the West, the failed mission turned into a hostage situation that left Carlos and his team hopping across the Middle East looking for a friendly country to take them in. Assayas' makes this episode the dramatic centerpiece of the film, taking up roughly one half of the second episode. In a sequence that recalls Lumet's "Dog Day Afternoon," Assayas films the events more or less objectively, passively watching as Carlos and his small team misguidedly lose control of their own mission.

In many respects, the allusions in this movie to classic films by Lumet and Coppola make sense; they establish an aesthetic link to films contemporary with Carlos' career and establish models for the actions and events that Carlos himself largely fails to accomplish. Over the course of the five and a half hour series, Assayas shows how Carlos' original political motivation turns into a weak fantasy and nods at these other films to show just how far his original ambitions have fallen.

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