MFAH Brings the 5-Hour Epic Carlos to Houston All Weekend
Canal Plus‘ and IFC Films‘ new five-hour epic about the international terrorist-revolutionary commonly known as “Carlos the Jackal,” Carlos, remedies everything that’s wrong with American studios’ action movies.
The extra two-to-three hours gives the filmmakers plenty of extra time to explore, frankly, everything that does not get explored in even the best action films. The Carlos character has so much room to grow that he starts as a violent revolutionary not yet aware of how or who to fight, or even what his own specific reasons are. He gradually grows into his reputation even as it precedes him, often to his detriment. He’s famous, adored by Saddam Hussein and by revolutionaries around the world, from Europe to South America to the Middle East. But for the first couple of hours of the film we see his main accomplishments being leaving a path of destruction in normally pristine, tranquil Western cities, and escaping in such narrow, brazen, and clever ways that if the film weren’t based on actual facts, you wouldn’t believe a bit of it.
But you will believe all of it. Though the film is shot in a claustrophobic style, it never utilizes that most annoying new style of close-quarter shooting and rapid edits that disorients the audience. Instead, the claustrophobia is used to make the movie more intimate and the tension more and more immediate. All of the action in Carlos is in focus and in your face — in a good way.
There are no white hats in Carlos. So while one group considers themselves revolutionaries, the other side calls them terrorist, and vice versa. The establishment is forced to negotiate with Carlos repeatedly, and in the five-plus-hour film, you’ll see all sides considered, and reconsidered. And then analyzed again.
But for me, after all of the finely crafted action, this is also a travelogue in the sense of the great James Bond films and the greater Bourne films. Carlos travels the globe constantly throughout the film. Each scene is set meticulously, as the period piece gets the most delicate attention to detail. There are so many period perfect cars everywhere, and clothes, hairstyles, cigarettes, and some of the most sublime interiors you’ll come across on film.
And like I said above, this film remedies everything its genre has done wrong recently, including the now standard use of a wide shot of a local landmark (the Eiffel tower, the Sydney Opera House, or the Golden Gate Bridge), followed by green-screen shots that are painfully obviously as happening on studio sets. Instead of those, Carlos has set each scene so lovingly that you really feel like you’re learning about each place, time, and culture much the way you would in a great novel. This is great, and it’s needed in this 315-minute epic, as opposed to an 88-minute popcorn movie.
MFAH film curator Marian Luntz brought Carlos to Houston. She was one of the first patrons turned away on that Sunday when the downtown Angelika Film Center was papered over and shut down in the middle of the night. When I emailed her that day for comment on a story I was working on for SCR, she promised me (just a few hours after the Angelika closed) that she would do her best to bring as many of the great touring art film releases to Houston as she could.
Well, Carlos is in very few cinemas in the U.S. right now, and Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts is one of them. So thanks to everyone at the MFAH for picking up the slack where others have failed. We’re lucky to have them and we’re lucky to have Carlos in their cinema all weekend.
Directed by Olivier Assayas; starring Edgar Ramirez as Carlos. Color, 319 minutes. Museum of Fine Arts Houston — www.mfah.org/films.