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Movie review: 'Carlos'

Edgar Ramirez amazes as the title terrorist in Olivier Assayas' immersive, involving, five-and-a-half-hour epic, available whole in theaters or in three parts on television.

October 11, 2010|By Betsy Sharkey | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

The central ensemble that washes in and out of his life is exceedingly well drawn, and much of what we learn of the man and his politics comes from those interactions. The most notable, in addition to Kaabour's Haddad, are a Lebanese militant code-named André (Fadi Abi Samra), the operative he first works under in Paris; Anis (Rodney El-Haddad), his No. 2 in the OPEC raid, who is nearly as magnetic as Carlos; Ali (Talal El-Jurdi), his ultra smooth handler; Johannes Weinrich (Alexander Scheer), the German intellect who would become Carlos' closest ally and associate; and Magdalena Kopp (Nora von Waldstatten), a master forger and Weinrich's girlfriend, quickly seduced by Carlos, who ultimately married her.

Working with cinematographers Yorick Le Saux and Denis Lenoir, Assayas keeps the pace fast and the intensity at an unsettling high as the film shifts among terrorists' actions, news reports, political debates, personal relationships and the evolving strategist that Carlos is becoming. He is both player and playboy, and Ramirez's sheer charisma on screen makes you regret the few frames he's not there to fill. It is a testament to the interplay of the images and the dialogue, which never fail to illuminate and yet never state the obvious, that despite the complexity, you never lose your way in the maze of arms trading, political maneuvering and death, always death.

An unsafe world

During Carlos' particular terror season, pre- 9/11, it is chilling to see how easy it was for those with mayhem in mind to walk into airports with rocket launchers barely concealed in duffel bags, or carry weapons, money and explosives on flights, plant car bombs and walk away undetected. It was an era when countries did still negotiate with terrorists, a bargaining chip Carlos used most visibly in the OPEC incident, demanding and getting a DC-9 that ultimately flew both terrorists and hostages from Algiers to Tripoli then back to Algiers, as Carlos searched for asylum.

The narrative moves from language to language as Carlos travels from country to country. Though some of the film is in English, with subtitles for the rest, Ramirez, who is fluent in five languages, uses his Spanish, French, German and English throughout, as well as the Arabic he learned for the production, in a way that is so seamless that you absorb and understand without remembering just how.

Whatever lessons there are to be learned about the terrorist mind in "Carlos," and they are many, what Assayas has done more tellingly is remind us of the sheer immersive force of the historical epic, a genre that has all but disappeared from the big screen. "Carlos" is already destined to stand alongside the greats, where substance and artistry trumped length -- "Lawrence of Arabia," clocking in at 3 hours, 36 minutes in 1962; "Doctor Zhivago," at 3 hours, 17 minutes in 1965; "Reds" at 3 hours, 14 minutes in 1981.

My hope is that it won't be the last of a dying breed, but the beginning of a new wave. And how fitting if that new wave were begun by the French.

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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