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Savant Blu-ray Review

Criterion 582
2010 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 339 min. / Street Date September 27, 2011 / 49.95
Starring Édgar Ramírez, Alexander Scheer, Alejandro Arroyo, Fadi Abi Samra, Ahmad Kaabour, Talal El-Jordi, Juana Acosta, Nora von Waldstätten, Christoph Bach, Rodney El Haddad, Julia Hummer, Antoine Balabane, Rami Farah, Aljoscha Stadelmann, Zeid Hamdan, Fadi Yanni Turk, Katharina Schüttler, Badih Abou Chakra, Basim Kahar, Cem Sultan Ungan.
Yorick Le Saux, Denis Lenoir
Written by Olivier Assayas, Dan Franck, Daniel Leconte
Produced by Jens Meurer, Daniel Leconte
Directed by Olivier Assayas

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Modern public enemies are no longer mere gangsters. Murderous drug cartels murder with impunity and manipulate their profits like corporations. Political and religious zealots carry out appallingly cruel attacks on civilian populations, for specific political reasons and to simply express their defiance. In movie terms, an early example of the crime/terror gang film was Carlo Lizzani's 1968 Banditi a Milano, which delineated the outrages of the Italian Cavallero Gang only a few months after a particularly violent bank robbery. Several seasons back, director Uli Edel gave us the tense docudrama thriller The Baader-Meinhof Complex, an account of a virulent splinter group of German terrorists of the 1970s.

2010's French-German co-production Carlos began life as a TV miniseries, although it was filmed in widescreen 2-perf Techniscope. Its three movies (or TV programs) top out at 5 hours and 39 minutes. The long running time is necessary to recount the notorious career of Illich Ramirez Sánchez, the Venezuelan terrorist and killer for hire who went by the name Carlos. Emerging from the radical soup of violent groups offering 'resistance' to Western power, Carlos made his name during the welter of assassinations and terror strikes precipitated by the slaying of the Israeli Olympic team at Munich in 1972.

Handsome, cocky and narcissistic, Carlos is eager to please his early handlers, agents working with Arab terrorist groups. Claiming eagerness to foment a world revolution, Carlos proves himself by carrying out solo slayings and random bomb attacks against Jewish targets in France; he easily enlists a girlfriend to help him move and hide caches of arms and 'emergency packs' of clothing and passports, etc.. A real firebrand, Carlos is quick to petition for a job held by a suspected superior. When the French capture a Japanese comrade in the Red Brigade, he goads his group into taking hostages at a consulate in the Hague to secure his release. He misses the appointed raid but forces French capitulation by tossing hand grenades into a crowded department store.

Carlos' bloody adventures span the next twenty years. He advertises his name to Interpol yet avoids capture; his Arab superiors are frequently concerned that his celebrity will bring too much heat in their direction. The turning point is a 1975 kidnapping of a group of OPEC ministers. Ordered to kill several of the ministers, Carlos instead changing plans on the battlefield. Finding less cooperation than he expected in the supposedly friendly countries where he lands the plane, he makes a deal to escape. Changing politics and the perception of Carlos as a loose cannon among his sponsors take their toll. For a while his group operates out of the Eastern Bloc Soviet satellite Hungary, with the only rule being that all their attacks be conducted elsewhere. Carlos can't even keep that bargain, and must once again go begging for a sponsor. Instead of an inspirational spearhead for a glorious revolution (at tactic that wins him a wife and several lovers) Carlos becomes a gun for hire, a political Murder Incorporated willing to hit almost anyone or anything for a paycheck and asylum. As the power of the Soviet Bloc evaporates, Carlos's options dry up. Although he knows well how to look out for himself, his former Syrian employers eventually make a deal to help a dedicated French anti-terror squad track him down.

Viewers of a certain age may remember the name of Carlos bandied about on the network news, as the fugitive most wanted by the Free World, yet it's shocking to see just how this man kept operating for so long. Most violent radicals ended up dead or betrayed a few months after taking up the cause. Carlos stayed independent and unpredictable. By the middle of part three, when the killings seem to follow every ringing of a doorbell, Carlos is holed up in Syria with his wife and child. It's the last place that will harbor him, on the vague promise that he'll assassinate the leader of Egypt. When the Berlin Wall falls, Syria decides that he's a liability as well.

Director and co-writer Olivier Assayas simply throws us into situations where we have to figure things out for ourselves. The film is remarkably easy to follow considering that the dialogue is in English, German, French, Spanish, Arabic and several other tongues. Frequent subtitle identifiers help to keep names and places straight in our minds. Édgar Ramírez's Carlos is a disarmingly handsome guy one would expect to be picking up girls in nightclubs. He maintains a busy sex life while conducting his crimes. There's never the slightest bit of doubt on his part about his chosen line of work.

Unlike the volunteer fighters of The Baader Meinhof Complex, Carlos' fellow soldiers aren't amateurs, punks or idealistic dreamers. The Japanese, German and Arab fighters are chillingly cool-headed as they go about their business. Early on, the Japanese Red Brigade soldier caught by the customs police refuses to speak except to identify himself, as would a soldier. When a tough French commando threatens to blow his brains out, he laughs. It's obvious that his blood pressure doesn't even go up. Some of Carlos' confederates have their personal doubts, but a petite German with the code name Nada (Julia Hummer) is an unnervingly lethal, unshakeable team player.

The movie races from country to country, painting rich portraits of politicians, security agents, spymasters and oil ministers under pressure. The level of cynicism and simple opportunism shown in the terror host countries is almost funny. Everybody claims to be committed to the Marxist overthrow of this or that power, but when it comes time to risk their own positions, Hungarian, Africans and Arabs change their tune. Ideology only goes so far. Everyone's out for themselves, Carlos most of all -- he comes to view himself as a V.I.P. celebrity. On his big OPEC raid, he ostentatiously dresses like Che Guevara.

Carlos may not be the perfect show to see in a single sitting but its violent thrills go by in a flash. It's also rather rough in the sex department, in particular in a scene in part 3 where Carlos forces a prostitute (actually an undercover cop) to perform a sex act in a filthy washroom. Just as we're surprised the way Carlos'es career is finally brought to a halt, the events in Assayas's film are completely unpredictable.

The acting throughout is excellent and the scripting so clear that we can keep most of the characters straight on a first viewing. Carlos is a fine picture for demolishing the aura of glamour that surrounds the world of international terrorism.

Criterion's Blu-ray of Carlos looks fine in HD; the heightened resolution and contrast allows us to read the Techniscope images much better than the transmissions on the Sundance cable TV channel. Assayas uses no music score and instead spots interesting pop music cues by groups like The Feelies.

Disc producer Kim Hendrickson's presentation comes in three parts on two discs and is accompanied by useful and educational extras. New interviews with director Assayas, actor Ramírez and director of photography Denis Lenoir show the complexity of the project and the makers' intense desire to capture Carlos' true nature: Édgar Ramírez explains that the playboy Carlos was the exact opposite of the dedicated Che Guevara. The hour-long docu Terrorist without Borders covers Carlos' entire career, while the thoughtful Maison de France examines the repercussions of a single Carlos terror bombing, one not depicted in the movie. Another featurette covers the filming of the OPEC raid scene. An undercover interview with Hans-Joachim Klein, a Carlos associate who disguises his face for the camera, is very disturbing: Klein wants to blame his life on the fact that his father was an SS soldier who married a Jew as camouflage against postwar retribution.

A fat insert booklet contains essays by Greil Marcus and Colin MacCabe, as well as a confusion-cutting bio of Carlos' criminal career in timeline form and mini-bios of the major players in the real-life drama.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Carlos Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Subtitles: English (only for foreign languages
Supplements: see above
Packaging: 2 Blu-ray discs in folding card and plastic disc holder plus insert booklet in car sleeve
Reviewed: September 23, 2011

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2011 Glenn Erickson

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