Carlos has long been confirmed as a Criterion title, so the announcement last week was more of a formality than anything else. Combined with a (great) cover that is essentially a minor reworking of Sam Smith's theatrical poster, the announcement elicited more comments along the lines of "Finally!" than "Yes!"
This shouldn't take away from what will be one of the best contemporary films Criterion releases this year - possibly the best film of 2010. At five-and-a-half hours (it is unclear whether or not the film will be divided into three parts as it originally was or combined into one long piece for the Criterion release) Carlos is a sprawling epic that examines broad topics like terrorism, geopolitical gamesmanship, and an evolving global climate by focusing on one notorious terrorist from the cold war era in vivid detail. Assayas, whose last film, Summer Hours, is also in the Collection, has been increasingly interested in globalization, and Carlos seems to be his inevitable masterpiece on the topic. By examining a famous but now-irrelevant figure from history, Assayas is able to simultaneously evaluate how much the world has changed and delve into the psychology behind terrorism in a way that is totally relevant today.
Carlos serves foremost as a reminder that terrorism did not begin on September 11th, 2001. Following Carlos the Jackal (interestingly, the film never makes reference to this media-given nickname) through his decades-spanning career, the film charts the various relationships, attacks, and personal ups and downs of a celebrity terrorist. Assayas is able to develop Carlos as a fully realized character who becomes fascinating to watch but remains entirely unsympathic - perhaps most dominant in his persona is unrelenting narcissism, a characteristic that the film seems to argue is inherently tied to the concept of a so-called revolutionary intent on delivering terror. The detail with which his character is depicted over the course of the miniseries turns the movie into a topical in-depth investigation of the motivations behind terrorism.
Beyond these political aspirations, the movie is technically satisfying, most obviously because of Edgar Ramirez's performance. The actor speaks in multiple languages, gains and loses weight frequently, and goes from 0 to 60 in an instant. He is both totally believable as a charming and charismatic leader and terrifying as a foolish and dangerous psychopath. He commands attention and, like the film, manages to depict grand moments with such subtle and realistic detail that he manages to avoid cinematic tropes and stick to utter realism. Meanwhile, Assayas is quietly assured throughout, making the film a crime-novel-style investigation into major world events. The screenplay is dense as hell, but entirely rewarding.
At five and a half hours, Carlos is an intimidating journey, but one well worth it. I have a hard time thinking of many movies that have been better over the past few years, and Ramirez in particular is really spectacular. This is a welcome addition to the collection.