Sunday, December 19, 2010

Carlos -- conversations, cigarettes and women

London, Paris, Beirut and back to Paris again. All in the opening 10 minutes. In the next 20 minutes, Hague, Yemen and Vienna are added to the travel itinerary. Welcome to the world of Carlos. A world defined by the constant lighting up of cigarettes, intense conversations about revolution, kidnappings and assassinations, and steamy sessions of sexual intercourse. Olivier Assayas' remarkable film is not a history lesson but instead picks certain key moments from Carlos’ life and weaves them into a coherent work that allows the audience to get a sense of Carlos’ ideas, his lovers and his shifting views. The three part film depicts Carlos’ transformation from a revolutionary with ideas to topple the system into a mercenary, a gun for hire. By the conclusion of the film, Carlos is a washed up terrorist who poses no real terror threat to anyone. So it is not surprizing to discover that he is captured at this stage, when he is fat, has no money or friends. Assayas is also interested in using the film as a lens to depict the complex international political games where rival enemy nations become friends the next day and vice versa.

Money, Passport & Diplomatic immunity

Any large scale terrorist operation requires money, lots of it. Surprizingly money is relatively easy to obtain for terrorists as almost all governments seem to have some set aside for destructive purposes. The rich nations spend oodles of money not only on their armies and weapons and but also on supporting rival nation’s groups, while less fortunate nations also allocate money for individual groups/mercenaries to carry out their terror plots. With money being no issue, it is a bigger challenge to obtain diplomatic immunity as only few nations can offer that security to hide terrorists.

Assayas’ film illustrates that no large scale terrorist operation can take place without a government’s knowledge. That government could be a domestic one or it could be a rival nation but some level of government has to be involved for a terrorist to slip through international borders undetected. For example, in the film it is the Syrian government that gives Carlos a diplomatic passport with a fake identity enabling him to easily fly across various countries and receive weapons in diplomatic packages. In Eastern Europe, Carlos plays the Soviet Union comrade card and gets full cooperation from East Berlin all the way through to the Kremlin because he proclaims to be fighting for communist ideals, while managing to fight for Palestinian freedom & Arab values at the same time. His words allow him to setup base in Hungary in full view of the Hungarian police who are powerless to stop him initially but only ask Carlos to leave after international pressures force the Hungarian government to distance themselves from him.

All the intelligence and spy missions won’t come close to arresting a major terrorist as long as he is protected by a diplomatic umbrella. Once that umbrella is removed, then rival spy services can move in and claim their prize. The French, aided by American intelligence, capture Carlos in Sudan but that was made possible because Carlos had outlived his usefulness and the Syrians gave him up.

Mirror Mirror

On one hand, one can understand Carlos’ political agenda by observing his interactions with governments/diplomats. On the other hand, Carlos’ relationship with the various women offer an insight into his insecurities and emotions. If the casting of Édgar Ramírez is perfect for Carlos, then the various women roles are perfectly cast as well as they form a valuable aspect for deciphering Carlos.

At the start of the film, Carlos is shown to be sophisticated, charming and brimming with revolutionary ideas. It is not surprizing to find him associate with an equally charming revolutionary over fine dining. At this stage, Carlos is mostly about ideas with very little action under his belt.

Once Carlos achieves success with his actions, his growing fame allows him to attract starry eyed admirers, whom he naturally educates about revolution. It is clear that Carlos will not associate with any woman who has a differing opinion to his and as a result he opts for a young woman willing to worship his every move.

The young girl is mesmerized by Carlos and his weapons. Carlos can merely utter words such as Weapons are an extension of my body and the girl is willing to have a foreplay session with a grenade.

But Carlos draws too much attention to himself and has to leave the country. Ofcourse, it does not matter where Carlos ends up because he can bed any woman. A fling on the beach with an unnamed woman follows.

Throughout his life, Carlos continued to utter his allegiance for the Palestinian cause even when he completely drifted away from any Palestinian issue. As Carlos’ revolutionary ideas are moulded into cold blooded killings, he meets his match in Magdalena Kopp in a Baghdad hotel. Magdalena is the only woman Carlos encounters who carries a gun and the two hit if off. Her icy behaviour mirrors the cold war nations they find themselves in and the Eastern Europe phase in Carlos’ life.

Carlos is shown to get easily bored, so it is not surprizing to see him get tired of Magdalena, especially after she has their child, thereby reducing her sexual appeal. By this stage in his life, Carlos is fat and not the thin suave man he once was. So predictably Carlos yearns for a youthful lover and he finds a perfect match in an innocent college student, who is willing to quietly stand by her man, through his worsening health.

The film shows that women were Carlos’ weakness. Even if he had a girlfriend or a wife, he still sought out sexual pleasure via prostitutes. On two occasions, Carlos’ interactions with prostitutes allow police/government to get information about him. In Sudan, Carlos lived under a false identity but he was discovered after a prostitute encounter reveals his lie. The discovery starts a chain of events which leads to his capture.

only 5.5 hours?

At first, the film’s total running time seems daunting. However, Carlos moves at such a brisk pace that the length is never felt. The film quickly weaves through the globe in Part I, focuses mainly on the botched hijacking in Part II and finally slows down to catch its breath midway through the third part but by then one wants to hold onto each passing minute tightly before the film’s inevitable conclusion.

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