French writer/director Olivier Assayas stepped out of his comfort zone for this blistering three-part bio-pic on self-styled terrorist-liberator Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, aka ‘Carlos.’ The film, released theatrically in various cuts, easily justifies its fullest running time of about 5½ hours in three easily digestible parts, no scorecard needed. Mostly playing out in the ‘70s, when Carlos was at his most active & reckless, we tag along on a series of escalating political attacks, police shootouts and plenty of collateral damage as Carlos and his unit attack whatever power they feel stands in the way of their anti-capitalistic, pro-Palestinian goals . . . whatever that might be. And that’s the question, since they wind up being against pretty much everything & everybody, and for . . . what? Carlos certainly shows no concrete idealism after he gains a measure of fame. It’s all Carlos (brilliantly played in a dazzling turn with confounding weight fluctuation & facial hair by Édgar Ramírez), or rather, all about Carlos & his ‘Carlo-istas.’ With Assayas keeping the action and politics triumphantly clear, the constantly shifting Middle Eastern alliances have rarely been navigated so well. But the film is also pure pulse-pounding thriller, beautifully paced with great perfs all around. The group’s high water mark has them taking hostage of an entire OPEC Council membership meeting. The lack of security now looks bizarre, but the film holds more closely to the facts than is usual in these things. (A fourth disc holds an hour-long documentary.) But perhaps most breathtaking of all is the group’s all but complete lack of self-awareness in joining forces exclusively with repressive governments in the Communist Block, partnering with the KGB, STASI and a variety of Arab dictatorships. (Megalomaniacs apparently lack the irony gene.) The wonder is less in Carlos’s success, being perfectly comfortable with murder takes you pretty far, but in how such a self-aggrandizing publicity whore was able to avoid arrest for decades. Maybe it was because he started out thinking he’d be the next Che Guevara and ended up closer to Scarface. The film is fabulous.
DOUBLE-BILL: Jean-François Richet’s MESRINE/’08 (a mere two-parter) with Vincent Cassel as France’s top ‘60s outlaw is like an apolitical companion piece.