Three Imaginary Girls

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Edgar Ramirez in Carlos

Carlos is an epic length treatment of the life and times of “Carlos the Jackal.” It’s spread out over quite a few hours, including dialog spoken in more languages than you likely have fingers and shot across a wide range of locations.  In short, this French film covers a lot of ground. Depending on your mood and worldview it’s either;

(a) an extended history lesson on one of the more famous terrorists of the late 20th century, and how states used terrorists as pawns during the cold war to their immoral advantage.
(b) an extended history on a freedom fighter for the world’s oppressed peoples.
(c) a metaphor of how the young start out with the best of intentions and ideals only to be ground down though the myriad petty distractions and corruptions of life.
(d) just another story about a guy too in love with his penis.

The first thing people will notice about the film Carlos is just how long it is. Clocking in at over six hours, the Northwest Film Forum will be showing it in three separate parts. Before I go further, it’s important to note that Edgar Ramirez, who plays Ilich Ramirez Sanchez (aka Carlos), is fantastic. The role spans many years, and Ramirez conforms both his body and his presentation to demonstrate the changes taking place within his character. He also switches fluidly between the raft of languages spoken by Carlos, often within the same conversation. Without his skills, the film would be unwatchable.

As in the case of any historical drama, if you know how things turn out, some element of drama is going to be lost. I’d imagine for example that The Doors is a completely shocking experience if you’re not expecting Jim Morrison to die (sorry if I spoiled that for you). So I think it’s important that I admit that I had only the fuzziest sense of who Carlos was and what he’d done. That definitely helped my enjoyment of the film – at least in the beginning.

I watched the film in three separate sittings over a few days. After the first film, I could barely wait to watch the second part – I was completely hooked by the performances and also the sense that I was watching a very dynamic history lesson. This segment covers Sanchez becoming “Carlos” after volunteering to take up arms on behalf of the Palestinian cause within Europe. It ends with his team about to execute a mission to kidnap OPEC ministers – behind which is a fascinating secondary mission that demonstrates the complex political fighting going on behind the scenes in the Arab world at that time.  

However, after that initial high, I because less and less interested in each of the successive films. Perhaps in part because I felt I got where the filmmakers were going with the subtext of the story and didn’t need so many hours to see it play out. After I’d hit that certain point of understanding, the remaining hours felt like a race to crank through a series of historical events. Albeit presented skillfully on-screen, I just wasn’t quite as enthralled as I was at the beginning. By the end, I was mainly watching because I was curious how things turned out more than any fascination with the film itself.

 The film’s introduction goes out of its way to point out this should be viewed as a fictionalized version of events. So I took the goings on with a grain of salt at times. That said, there seem to be two interesting implicit story lines as told.

First, the part about how Carlos was rather blatantly used as a tool by Arab states with support of the Soviets to be “their” terrorist mucking up things in the west (demonstrated clearly by how shockingly openly he operated behind the iron curtain), only to be tossed away as the Soviet empire disintegrated. Second, it’s the story of a radical that gets into things perhaps for the ideology (at least somewhat), but then mainly does things to reinforce his importance (and get paid) by the states he serves.

Carlos is a strong example of a work that succeeds in showing vs. telling with respect to the characters involved.  I challenge you not to wonder how ideologically pure the motivations of Carlos really are as you watch him dining in fancy cafes, bombing a bank, and awakening the next morning admiring his abs as he emerges from the bath naked. Sure, it’s not entirely unobvious to realize that as Carlos enjoys listening to the results of his acts on TV that he views his violence as an extension of his (slowly stroked) cock. But it is effective…at least in the first 1.5 films.

Though given all the hours of screen-time, there’s occasionally a bit of repetitiveness to it, all which for me culminated in a scene where he masturbates a woman while stroking her body with a grenade. Especially at the point where she gives an enviable treatment with her tongue to the device’s pin as he utters “weapons are an extension of my body.”

Which reminds me of the one thing I wondered during this film – how did these folks have time to stage elaborate terrorist strikes given the amount of sex they seemed to be having?

Do I recommend seeing the film?  In it’s entirety – I’m not so sure.  I’d definitely suggest catching the first one, and then making your own decision from there.