CANNES, France — There are long movies. There are massively long movies. And then there is “Carlos.”
A dramatized story of the rise and fall of the enigmatic, charismatic and at times dogmatic terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal, Olivier Assayas’ new film clocks in at a leg-numbing 5 hours and 19 minutes. If that sounds like a daunting viewing experience, it may be of some comfort to know that the man responsible for it was intimidated too.
“I did not want to make ‘Carlos.’ It seemed too crazy and too complicated,” Assayas said during an interview in a Cannes restaurant two days after the film premiered. “It just happened to me.”
What happened — or what Assayas made happen, with the financing of the French broadcaster Canal-Plus — was a seven-month shoot across three continents. The result, which premiered in a marathon screening at the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday and will be released by IFC both in this form and as a 2 1/2-hour condensed version in theaters and on television this fall, is a sprawling and suspenseful film about one of the 20th century’s least understood radicals.
Born Ilich Ramirez Sanchez in Venezuela, Carlos emerged in the 1970s as a radical leftist operative with the violent Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine before striking out on his own. In his subsequent two-decade career as a leftist guerrilla and terrorist leader, he allegedly masterminded numerous deadly attacks across Europe and the Middle East before finally being captured in 1994and convicted three years later of the slaying of several counterintelligence agents.
Divided into three parts (and airing over three nights this weekend on French television), the film thoroughly and thrillingly explores the becoming of Carlos, his run as a guerrilla leader and debonair Lothario in the vein of John Dillinger, and his eventual demise into a cartoonish glutton who spends too many hours dancing in cheesy nightclubs. Think of “Munich” with more ambition, or “The Bourne Identity” with more substance, and you begin to get a sense of the film’s tone and scope.
Assayas, who landed on Americans’ radar two years ago with a very different work, the family drama “Summer Hours,” combed through reams of material and consulted with multiple journalists (though he still warns in the title screen that this is a work of fiction). “What spoke to me is a life full of such extraordinary events. I had about three stereotypical notions of him, and they didn’t even connect. Until now, he’s existed only as a media abstraction.”
Indeed, Carlos has been among the most romanticized terrorist leaders of modern times (he’s memorialized, among other pop-cultural vehicles, in Robert Ludlum’s bestselling Jason Bourne novels). But this film, in which the Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez plays Carlos with suave aplomb, is meant to shred some of the paper-thin conceptions about the assassin.
“What we’re trying to do is demystify him,” Ramirez said in an interview. “This guy who supposedly had everything figured out was not as keen as he was said to be. The public and historical image was as history’s big manipulator but in many moments of his life, he was being manipulated.”
That image is in particular relief during the film’s linchpin scenes, occupying most of the second chapter. In a major attack Carlos led on a meeting of OPEC ministers in Vienna, and in the subsequent removal of hostages to Algeria, the terrorist makes numerous political and logistical missteps and loses control of the operation.
That reimagining of Carlos may be one reason why the figure, who currently sits in a Paris prison, wrote a letter to Ramirez just before the film’s premiere, assailing the actor for being a pawn of the capitalist system. (Carlos had not been shown the movie, nor had he and Assayas had any communication while the film was being made.) Among Carlos’ points: Both he and the actor depicting him were Venezuelans named Ramirez, so the thespian should know better. Ramirez said he thought about writing back but realized it was fruitless.
Though Ramirez’s performance can read more as coolly slick than as fiery revolutionary, the actor’s deft ability to move between modes — is he an ideologue or a mercenary? — not to mention cultures and languages, makes this one of the most versatile performances to come along in years. (Ramirez is fluent in English, German, French and Spanish, all of which he spoke in the film; he spoke Arabic phonetically.)
The diversity of cultures made for some production challenges but it was worth the effort in the end, Assayas says, because the material provided such a naturally compelling story. “It became a thriller almost without me trying,” he says. “This movie is like a big box. I kept throwing more things in, putting one fact after another, and it became a thriller.”
It also is an origin story of sorts for the modern world, showing, in rich period detail, the schisms and ideologies that prefigured today’s political divides and subcultures of radicalism.
“The film shows the birth of a celebrity against the backdrop of tumultuous world events,” says marketing executive Ryan Werner of IFC, which plans on using both its own network and sister Sundance Channel, as well as video-on-demand and movie theaters, to release the film.
Or as Assayas says: “Ultimately, this says something about how times changed, and how Carlos is echoed in the history of our time.”