Cannes 2010: Carlos the Jackal flashes his teeth


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How good is Olivier Assayas’ “Carlos”? Think of “The Bourne Identity” with more substance, or “Munich” with more of a pulse, and you begin to have a sense of what the French filmmaker accomplished with this globetrotting and epic look at one man’s rise to the station of international guerrilla leader and terrorist celebrity.

The marathon movie played in a one-time-only session at Cannes Wednesday, starting at noon and stretching into the dinner hour (well, the dinner hour if we weren’t in southern France). The film is divided into three parts -- it will air that way on French television -- and journalists and other filmgoers prepared accordingly, sneaking in sandwiches and other caloric nourishment for the break at the 3 1/2-hour mark, right after the second part and shortly after Carlos orchestrated the mainly unsuccessful raid at a Vienna OPEC meeting.


Not that one needed the carbs -- Assayas’ movie provides plenty of energy of its own, offering just enough thrills to keep the film suspenseful (especially in the second section), without sacrificing character detail, period style and even, perhaps, historical truth (though a disclaimer at the beginning of the film warns that while it’s based on historical research, this is primarily a work of fiction. We’re sure historians will have a field day when IFC Films releases it in the fall).

Among its other striking features is how much of Carlos’ ideological side it shows -- he comes off as much as a Che (at least in his own mind and the mind of his followers) as he does a mercenary assassin. Equally notable is how much this story of one man and the many connections and confrontations he has across Europe and the Middle East tells the larger political history of the 1970s and 1980s, as well as our current battle/engagement with terrorism. It’s almost like an origin story for the contemporary world.

And Edgar Ramirez, while at times more debonair than revolutionary, still delivers a fluid, polylingual gem of a performance. (We’ll have more from him and Assayas Thursday.)
Of course, at 319 minutes, any film will have its weak spots, and this one does too, particularly in the first section, when many of the early missions feel a little repetitive and throat-clearing before we get to the linchpin OPEC mission of the second part, the one that put him on the map and changed his trajectory forever.

But slow in this movie is a relative term. This is an impressive work, the kind that one may be moved to see for reasons of novelty (it is a five-hour odyssey, after all) but that one is glad to have seen for all sorts of nobler reasons.

--Steven Zeitchik, reporting from Cannes, France

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