Carlos is ostensibly a biopic of Illich Ramirez Sanchez, also known by his nomme de guerre Carlos (after Carlos Peron) and by his Guardian appointed headline friendly nickname Carlos the Jackal, taking us through his rise to prominence to his eventual arrest in the early 90s. There is definitely a hint of Scarface and The Godfather in this real-life story, though Carlos is presented initially as a far more idealistic figure than the hedonist, money and power-hungry villains of those two works, and the intriguing parallel has obviously been enough for the US rights to both the theatrical and TV versions to be picked up by Sundance TV and IFC Films.
Personally, I think the experience of watching Carlos in its mini-series form with the luxury of a week long gap between the three parts (though I would even argue that it could do with added serialisation- especially considering each part is feature length). I may have been prejudiced by the fact that my gammy knee started playing up midway through the 90+opening episode, an didnt relent until the final, applause filled credits rolled. But the film was obviously shot in a style that would translate well on television, with pause points coming at relevant intervals, and the action of Carlos’ life broken up into three discernible, and easily saleable portions for that audience. There will undoubtedly be a good deal of suspense-induced interest between the first and second episodes airing on Canal at the end of May, and Sundance TV aroud the same time, thanks to a bracing cut off point.
On the whole, Edgar Ramirez is great as the titular antihero, with his performance of Carlos’ self-belief and idealism very believable- a success perhaps rooted in Ramirez’s own politically motivated background (he is actively involved in charity work). Ramirez also gives the role an assured emotional undertone, and an abundance of explosive emotive energy when required, giving Carlos the requisite balance of intellect, charm and fire. It seems the actor is well versed in terrorism roles, having taken part in the other epic terrorist biopic Che for Steven Soderbergh, as well as Vantage Point the same year, and the experience shows.
However, for a film centred on one character, Ramirez is oddly stunted in the final third of it, his performance suffering especially in the final thirty minutes or so, as Carlos’ web of protection unravels and he finds himself outcast by former allies and at the mercy of his enemies. Sadly, this is precisely when Ramirez’s strong performance would be called for most, as Ramirez struggles to find his place (and a haven) in a world that has classed him as outdated after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Perhaps it will translate better on television screens as reflecting Carlos’ own move away from the impulsive violence that ruled his early terrorist career, but on the big screen it just felt a little like Ramirez’s performance had tailed off under the pressure of carrying such a weighty responsibility.
The rest of the cast are good for the most part, with good performances in particular from Nora von Waldstatten as Carlos’ wife and fellow activist Magdalena Kopp, and Alexander Scheer as co-conspirator (and the unlucky bloke who Carlos steals Magdalena off) Johannes Weinrich, though it is no coincidence that both are two of the only other characters with a sustained presence on screen. Due to the grandness of the project, and the huge amount of detail that has gone into it, a great deal of characters flit in and out of the narrative as Carlos encounters them, and in feature film form it is almost impossible for them to be memorable. They dont exactly compete for audience attention, so the more memorable of the peripheral figures tend to be the most explosive characters who etch themselves more readily on the mind, which is often a symptom of the TV series to feature film meld (the same is true of the excellent Red Riding Trilogy in film form).
The problem for Carlos is the sheer amount of detail that the biopic needs to properly furnish Carlos’ own life, which simply cannot translate on screen well enough to keep the attention over five and a half hours. It seems Carlos was a busy man, and the film looks to present as much of the detail as possible, justifying the obvious feverish amount of dilligence that went into the research stage of pre-production. While an admirable approach for a documentary, the zealous detail painting comes at a cost, unfortunately translating as a lack of directorial self-control and discipline which is fairly fatal for sustained entertainment value. The final evaluation is that over the five anda half hour running time, the film is more interesting than actually entertaining.
Overall, the film looks great and the acting is generally well-received, though Carlos will undoubtedly work better in its originally intended three part mini-series form, and will find an audience thanks to the incredible attention to detail and the obvious passion of the film-makers. For this film, above all else, is a labour of love, and an admirable achievement for such a grand project that has an obligation to a frankly amazing amount of historical facts.
It just remains to be seen whether Carlos will continue to cast his considerable shadow over the project: he is currently suing the film-makers for royalties, having already attempted to get the film banned in case it affects his upcoming cases. Malevolence, it seems, does not recognise the boundaries a prison offers.