Bravura narrative filmmaking on a hugely ambitious scale, “Carlos” is a spectacular achievement. Tracing the rise and fall of Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, the Venezuelan terrorist whose pro-Palestinian activities earned him global notoriety in the ’70s and ’80s, Olivier Assayas’ sprawling yet incisive three-part epic compacts some 30-odd years of history into almost six hours of thrilling, kinetic, psychologically revealing portraiture. Prestigious festival berths will drum up excitement for a picture produced for television but absolutely made for the bigscreen, set to be released Stateside by IFC in both its full version and a 2 1/2-hour cut this fall.
Ever the chameleon, Assayas makes another of his switchblade transitions here, moving from the humanist pleasures of “Summer Hours” to the biggest and, extravagant length aside, arguably most commercial canvas he’s ever worked on. Result is a landmark contribution to the recent flush of movies devoted to ’70s terrorism, including Koji Wakamatsu’s “United Red Army,” Uli Edel’s “The Baader Meinhof Complex” and Barbet Schroeder’s docu “Terror’s Advocate” (which devotes a full chapter to Sanchez).
Dense in detail, rich in verisimilitude, displaying a focused grip on its material and fully trusting a smart audience to keep up, “Carlos” is, at 5 1/2 hours, a marvel of concision, and for all its nonstop globe-trotting and language-switching, its energy rarely flags; it’s difficult to imagine a shorter edit as coherent as the world-premiere version presented at Cannes. (Pic will air in its entirety this month in Europe on Canal Plus and in the U.S. in October on Sundance Channel; the shorter cut will be available on-demand.)
Wisely skipping Sanchez’s formative years and focusing instead on his career, Assayas adopts a rigorous procedural approach that’s perfectly suited to the restless camera movements and crisp, intuitive editing that have characterized even those films of his that weren’t action-driven. Working from a version of events that, as the opening titles announce, has been fictionalized for the screen, Assayas and co-scribe Dan Franck resist the temptation to glamorize an iconic murderer or explain away his psychology, though their panoramic vision packs enough telling details to offer audiences the proper view of their subject, as someone worthy of intense interest but little admiration.
Part one begins in 1973, as 23-year-old radical Sanchez (Edgar Ramirez) pushes his way into the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, led by Beirut-based militant Wadie Haddad (Ahmad Kaabour). Impulsive, impassioned and not a little sure of himself, Sanchez, smooth-shaven except for his very long sideburns, takes on the nom de guerre of Carlos (“the Jackal” is never mentioned); working under PFLP Euro chief Michel Moukharbal (Fadi Abi Samra), he quickly proves his mettle by spearheading a series of missions in London.
Staged with finesse and matter-of-fact bloodshed, these nerve-wracking operations include the Japanese Red Army’s 1974 raid on the French Embassy in the Hague and failed attacks on an El Al jetliner, culminating in a tense scenario in which Carlos, cornered by French intelligence agents, is forced into decisive, violent action. Though the outcome establishes Carlos as a soldier to be reckoned with, Haddad chastises him for having become too much of a Western celebrity and warns him to exercise more discipline.
With Carlos having sprouted a beard and a gut to go along with his revolutionary ambition, the film surges ahead with tremendous urgency into its second and strongest segment, largely devoted to the December 1975 raid on a conference at OPEC headquarters in Vienna, an operation primarily funded and orchestrated by Saddam Hussein. Leading a commando consisting of Lebanese No. 2 Khalid (Rodney El-Haddad) and two German revolutionaries, Angie (Christoph Bach) and the murderously unstable Nada (Julia Hummer, frightening and intense), Carlos intends to execute the oil ministers of Saudi Arabia and Iran, but the plan goes awry when their getaway plane is unable to reach its intended destination, Baghdad.
A brilliantly sustained tour de force, this hostage sequence is the glittering, galvanizing centerpiece of “Carlos,” marking the man’s most famous feat yet while also foreshadowing his downfall as he proves all too willing to waver in his commitment to his “anti-imperialist” cause. Ejected from the PFLP, Carlos decides to form his own organization and heads to East Berlin, where he joins forces with Stasi agent Johannes Weinrich (Alexander Scheer). He also steals Weinrich’s revolution-minded wife, Magdalena Kopp (Nora von Waldstatten), in one of many scenes emphasizing Carlos’ virility and sexual greed.
As the second chapter bleeds into the third, circa 1979, the picture devotes much time to laying out the extraordinarily complicated details of Carlos’ Iron Curtain phase, which finds him based in Hungary and sheltered by Syria, smuggling weapons between Budapest and East Berlin. The bombings of a French train and a car outside an Arab newspaper office in Paris are among the atrocities swiftly covered here, mostly via actual news footage (which Assayas weaves in effectively throughout).
Though ostensibly at large and in charge, Carlos is increasingly constrained by the shifting geopolitical landscape and finds himself abandoned by one ally after another. By the end of the Cold War, this once-international militant is a man without a country, finally forced to lead a fugitive existence in Sudan. Part three reps the film’s longest, least engrossing passage, but that’s to be expected, given the nature of the antihero’s slow, inevitable downfall.
It’s also the passage that reveals the full shape of Carlos’ true character — high-minded yet corruptible, ruthless yet naive, a master manipulator ultimately outmanipulated by the vast network of interlocking political and financial interests in Europe and the Middle East. Assayas sprinkles moments of mordant humor throughout the film, pointing up the sheer absurdity of the man’s delusions, never more so than when Carlos denounces capitalism in one scene and, several beats later, surprises Magdalena with a new Mercedes.
Himself born in Venezuela and fluent in five languages, the perfectly cast Ramirez (from “Che,” Steven Soderbergh’s very different portrait of a self-styled revolutionary) holds Carlos’ many contradictions together in an indelible performance, maintaining a fearsome intensity through the first two-thirds before gradually draining away the charisma and athleticism (and piling on the weight); he’s convincing at every age and every stage. The film is Ramirez’s star-making show, but it’s been well cast down to the smallest role; Kaabour and Hummer register with particular force, and von Waldstatten does well in a somewhat standard-issue role as the increasingly embittered wife.
An enormous logistical undertaking with more than 120 actors and a 92-day shoot across multiple countries, the French-German co-production was embattled at several stages, ironically if predictably, by politically complicated negotiations to shoot in countries such as Yemen and Sudan (Lebanon stood in for most of the Middle East locations). Nonetheless, the result is a seamless big picture with superior tech work all around; Yorick Le Saux and Denis Lenoir’s widescreen 35mm lensing sparkles and sizzles, and the contributions of editors Luc Barnier and Marion Monnier, maximizing both clarity and momentum, cannot be overstated. Song choices amp up the atmosphere, especially in the ’70s sequences.
For the record, Sanchez has reportedly objected to the picture on grounds of inaccuracy from La Sante Prison, where he is serving a life sentence.