Carlos, Olivier Assayas, 338 mins (full version), 165 mins (abridged) (15)

Originally made as a TV mini-series, this biopic of a terror icon rivetingly charts his descent from principle to expediency

The name Ilich Ramírez Sanchez may not ring a bell, but his nom de guerre “Carlos” certainly will – or “Carlos the Jackal”, to use his media sobriquet.

Olivier Assayas’s sprawling, energetic film offers an encyclopedic fictionalised take on the enigmatic icon of 1970s terrorism – from glory days as international folk demon to declining years on the run.

Currently imprisoned in France for three murders in Paris in 1975, Sanchez objected to the film, on the grounds that it would damage his reputation – which suggests that he has more of a sense of humour than the film gives him credit for. Sanchez doesn’t come out of Carlos well – he’s revealed as a self-serving paranoid narcissist, a verbose blowhard, even a bumbler. Yet he acquires an undeniably mythic stature, not because he’s glorified but because he comes to represent a past political era in all its bewildering complexity. He embodies an old guard of international militancy – of ostensibly clear-cut revolutionary conviction that increasingly devolves into a morass of dubious expediency.

Written by Dan Franck and Assayas, Carlos chooses to reveal little about its subject’s back story. At the start, Sanchez arrives on the scene fully formed and quickly persuades the Palestinian PFLP organisation that he’s a hotshot freedom fighter. We soon see him involved in a series of desperate pursuits, notably a Japanese Red Army attack on the French embassy in the Hague. We also see him talking revolution with girlfriends, and frequenting swanky restaurants – he was, after all, a scion of the money -ed Venezuelan bourgeoisie. The film is good on the stilted locution of radical rhetoric, but Sanchez always seems to be promoting himself rather than his cause. At one point he boasts, “I have 40 commando groups around the world, ready to act as soon as I give the order.” In reality, he commands an ever-smaller cell of sullen German militants – which by the end has shrunk to an ill-tempered household of himself, wife Magdalena Kopp (Nora von Waldstätten) and her ex-boyfriend Johannes Weinrich (Alexander Scheer).

Above all, Carlos is an actor, and he's brilliantly played by Edgar Ramírez – who's not only Venezuelan himself, but also shares a name with his character. He both gives Sanchez a pop-star swagger replete with bullish sexuality, and captures the perplexing void in his personality. Carlos is less a self than a series of masks: first seen as a sleek urbanite in aviator shades, Carlos turns up for the Opec siege of 1975 essentially disguised as Che Guevera, as if in revolutionary fancy dress. Later, he complacently goes to seed as a businessman in beige suits and short-sleeved shirts.

Carlos is also an outrageous macho. Some scenes knowingly play up the spy-thriller sexiness: when he first meets Magdalena Kopp, he uses the priceless come-on, "Revolutionary discipline – are you ready to submit to it unconditionally?" There's slightly grimmer comedy soon after, as Carlos tells Kopp's boyfriend Weinrich that he's started an affair with her: "I hope that this won't alter your commitment to the revolution."

This is a film about a world now barely imaginable: an age of insanely lax security, when a bunch of Afghan-coated beardies could casually saunter into the Opec conference with clearly baleful intent, or when you could just show up at Orly airport on the off-chance and bazooka an El Al jet (in fact, the film is superb on the cock-up theory of militant action: Carlos's mob actually blow up a Yugoslav plane by mistake, and Croatian separatists claim the hit).

There's much sobering insight into the compromised complexity of political motivation, showing how sleazily pragmatic some of these supposed freedom fighters were in their allegiances. The militant Weinrich turns out to be cosying up with the bureaucrats of the Stasi, while the Opec siege, we learn, is carried out not so much for the Palestinian ideal but in order to help Saddam Hussein crush Kurdish liberation.

This polyglot drama (I counted seven languages, with English and French predominating) barrels along propulsively from crisis to crisis, location to location – Paris, London, Damascus, Khartoum .... The hot point comes in the second section, covering Carlos's Opec hijacking and his subsequent flight by airliner, as he finds himself persona non grata in one country after another. Part three is slower-paced, but utterly gripping – as an increasingly desperate and obsolete Sanchez blusters about in Budapest, languishes as a stateless and worried family man, then meets his downfall shortly after having liposuction for his love handles.

Commissioned as a mini-series for French TV, Carlos is being released as a stand-alone film in long (five-and-a-half-hour) and shorter cuts. I've seen the full-length version, and I can tell you this: it's very definitely cinema, and you should absolutely see it in its entirety. Olivier Assayas last made the contemplative family drama Summer Hours, but here he grabs political melodrama between his teeth, with the verve of Michael Mann elbowing into John le Carré territory. A compelling rival to Spielberg's similarly themed Munich, and way ahead of the ropey The Baader Meinhof Complex, Carlos also knocks Steven Soderbergh's Che diptych into a cocked beret. This is one of the most provocative, illuminating and downright riveting films of the year – every last minute of it.

Both versions of 'Carlos' are available on DVD and Blu-ray from 1 Nov

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