Toward the end of Olivier Assayas's Carlos, a young French diplomat's wife goes to answer the door of their flat in Beirut and is greeted by a huge bunch of flowers—which immediately disappears to reveal a gun that shoots her in the middle of the forehead. This is the signature shot, in both senses of the word, of the best movie about terrorism ever made. We are in the world of sudden death from the film's opening, in which a Palestinian in Paris dies when a car bomb goes off, until the flurry of activity just before its final stage, after the Berlin Wall falls and Carlos is dropped by his Syrian allies. Above all, we are in the world of guns—guns are caressed, loaded, transported, and then used. Of course, as Godard famously said, all a film needs is a girl and a gun, but there is no question which comes first for Carlos. There are girls aplenty—revolutionary groupies, hookers, even two wives—but the only real turn-on for Carlos is the possibility of sudden death.
Carlos (2010) is an astonishing film—not least because of its five-and-a-half-hour length. There are parallels in the history of the cinema, of course: both Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927) and Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900 (1976) run over five hours in their original form, their lengths related to their attempts to portray long stretches of history. But there are very few, and Carlos is further distinguished by functioning uncommonly well as a hybrid, both television miniseries and theatrically exhibited film. It is no surprise that it comes out of Canal Plus, the media company that has thought most seriously about how to combine cinema and television. And there is no doubt that Carlos is cinema of the highest order, from its CinemaScope frame to its extraordinarily fluid camera work to its astonishing performances.
At its center is Édgar Ramírez's Carlos, whom we see thicken and coarsen over twenty years of a life lived in the world of faked passports, bought sex, and the constant threat of violence. Assayas eschews all of the psychologizing and moralizing that would mar a typical American treatment of this topic. We are never privy to Carlos's thoughts, and there is no overt condemnation of his politics or way of life. At the same time, this is a terrifying portrait of a monster. Two scenes can be taken as examples: The first occurs at the beginning of the movie, when, having carried out his first hit, a naked Carlos narcissistically preens in front of a mirror. The second comes toward the end, as the ever more seedy and violent terrorist forces a hooker, who unbeknownst to him is in the secret police, to give him a particularly humiliating blow job. The horror with which the woman spits out the sperm at the end of the encounter emphasizes how, for Carlos, sex and violence have become one and the same.
In a way, however, Carlos, although present in almost every scene of the film, is merely a device for conveying the film's real subject, the wave of violent terror that grew out of the sixties and the links among the variety of Palestinian terror groups, their backing by rival Arab states, and their connections with Eastern European security apparatuses. Here, perhaps, the greatest praise should be reserved not for Assayas's brilliant direction but for his narrative skill as a cowriter. Weaving his way from airport to airport, from smoke-filled room to smoke-filled room, he conducts an exemplary history lesson, one that, as the opening credits announce, is based on sustained and thorough research. And yet the film is a work of fiction. This paradox can be seen in one of its climaxes, when the Syrian Mukhabarat (military intelligence) dumps Carlos in 1990, after more than a decade of support. Assayas presents the moment as entirely determined by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disappearance of the Communist regimes whose secret police have been integral to Carlos's Arab links. In fact, the Syrian decision was partly the product of other developments in the Arab world, particularly the first Gulf War, but to introduce this further thread would have damaged the complex but unified narrative that Assayas was constructing. Had Assayas been true to history by including these facts, he would have been untrue to history in not giving enough emphasis to the connections that bound student terrorism to Arab dictatorships and Stalinist Eastern European regimes.
The scope of Assayas's narrative mirrors the modern world in a way that very few films attempt. It is the most evident of truths that we live in an ever more connected world, and one feature of this is that we encounter ever more languages and cultures. Terrified of audience resistance to subtitles, most films simply duck this reality. Not Carlos. The protagonist himself speaks five languages: Spanish, English, French, German, and Arabic, and we hear Hungarian, Russian, and Japanese as well. From this description, you might expect the film to be merely an earnest history lesson or a study in the degradations of terrorism. But that would be to miss the fact that this is above all a genre film—Assayas set out to make a thriller, and he succeeds so brilliantly that you can watch all five and a half hours in a sitting, constantly gripped by the twists and turns of a plot that is faithful to history but just as faithful to suspense. It is this that allows Assayas and Ramírez to keep us with the film. We register both the general history and the individual portrait, but we are constantly waiting for the next shot, for the angle and perspective from which the next bullet will come.
Colin MacCabe is Distinguished Professor of English and Film at the University of Pittsburgh. He recently coedited the collection True to the Spirit: Film Adaptation and the Question of Fidelity (Oxford University Press).