November, 2010, Drama



Could you evaluate Picasso’s epic Guernica if you were only permitted to see every other square inch of this 11 by 25 foot canvas? If that prevented a fair evaluation, could the process nevertheless provide you with sufficient basis to at least make a tentative judgment about the whole?

That’s the challenge which faces audiences who see the 2 hour - 45 minute “theatrical” version of this 5 and ½ hour long made -for television miniseries which is currently playing in New York City (downtown in the original 5 & ½ hour version; uptown opposite The Lincoln Center in the edited one).  Unwilling to subject my posterior to  the former, I settled  for the latter, only to come away with an impression decidedly at odds with professional film critics, who have exuberantly praised this examination of  the career of  Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, the Venezuelan terrorist  who rose to international prominence under the code name  Carlos.

The distinguished  French writer/director Olivier Assayas is  reputed to have done vast amounts of research on his  homicidal subject, who directed the raid  on a meeting of  OPEC ministers in 1975 which instantly made him an international,  if horrific, celebrity. Although originally aligning himself with various anti-Israeli Palestinian groups, Carlos evolved into a cynical hit-man, for sale to anyone in the shadowy world of terrorism willing to pay him and provide sanctuary from the authorities. Smart, ego-centric and totally unsympathetic to the needs of anyone other than himself, he was finally captured in central Africa while recuperating from liposuction surgery and whisked off to France, where he remains jailed to this day. Beyond securing the deaths of numerous innocents and causing the expenditure of vast quantities of governmental time and money to hunt him down, Carlos accomplished nothing, stands for nothing and is ultimately admired for nothing. Even the jaded world of revolutionary ideologues has turned its back on him.

If  a detailed examination of what can be known  of  his life sounds  like a painful way to spend  a few  hours in the dark, it should be  noted that Assayas  has fashioned a quasi-documentary which certainly conveys both  the atavistic terrorist worldview as  well  as the deadening boredom which greets its practitioners  in the stretches of time which invariably lie between one  lethal incident and the next. There are ample opportunities to experience both here, but is that enough?  Doesn’t a film which takes this much time to tell its story cry out for some reasonably penetrating and or plausible explanation for the motivations of this exceptionally lionized international gangster?

Last year’s The Baader-Meinhof Complex  did  just that,  examining the motivational evolution of the German terrorists who operated  in western Europe during same  time period  in the 1970’s & ‘80’s when  Carlos’ star was  in its ascendency. In  that film, audiences got the  opportunity to see the growth and maturation of the terrorist mentality; in  at least the shortened version of Carlos,  audiences are simply presented with a multi-lingual  sociopath who favors  tailored leather jackets and excellent Scotch - - what  Carlos did is laid out in numbing  detail - -  but the director seems uninterested in why he did it.

If the complete  version of this film  responds to  that last  complaint, I’d be willing and eager to revise my opinion - - but I have  the lingering suspicion that the version shown  initially in 3 installments on television simply provides more  of what  the  shortened version provides; lots of  the nuts and bolts which make up terrorist activity, but precious little of the underlying,  twisted journey which they take in order  to justify their actions.

The Verdict?  A suitable story for complex telling, rendered stupefying dull in at least its edited version.   

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