‘Carlos’ is the lightly fictionalised biopic of Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, known to the world – but not in this film! – as Carlos the Jackal, and it comes across as the mother of all New Yorker profiles writ loud and large on the screen. Central to the film is a passionate, technically complex (he’s fluent in half a dozen languages) performance from Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez who feels like the perfect, paunchy mouthpiece for Carlos’s fervent, if flawed, gunboat Marxism.
Covering the period between his joining the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in 1970 and his capture in Sudan in 1994 (as he was being treated for a varicose vein on one of his testicles), the film works best when it presents information visually rather than with swathes of ideological discourse. The highlight is a masterly rendering of Carlos’s raid on an OPEC meeting in Vienna in 1975 for which Assayas orchestrates detail in such a way that it speaks about the politics, fears, tactics and ambitions of all involved. Elsewhere, small episodes – such as the gun-toting capture of Baader-Meinhof wildcat Gabriele Kröcher-Tiedemann – feel like they’ve been included purely for the sake of thoroughness.
Assayas doesn’t try to reflect too audaciously on Carlos ‘the man’, though he does paint him as someone whose single-minded focus on political goals was partly fuelled by raging sexual desire. (NB: The film is also screening in a more compact 158-minute version.)