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Originally made as a TV mini-series, this biopic of a terror icon rivetingly charts his descent from principle to expediency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

Next Week:

Jonathan Romney watches the hit American sperm-donor comedy The Kids Are All Right

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor