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Rediscover is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that have flown under the radar and now deserve a second look.
As you read this feature, Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (better known by his nom de guerre Carlos the Jackal) will be on trial in Paris for four bomb attacks committed in 1982 and 1983. Already convicted to a life sentence for the murder of two French policemen and an informant in 1975, Carlos continues to not only stress that he is the enemy of American and Israeli imperialists, but that his two decade reign of terror claimed the lives of up to 2,000 people.

It’s Carlos the narcissist that Olivier Assayas focuses on during his five and a half hour triumph Carlos, criminally unseen by many in the United States when released last year. Thanks to a loving release by the Criterion Collection, you can now watch the 339 minute epic at your own pace. Originally produced as a three part miniseries in France, Assayas’ film may be the most complete portrait of a terrorist ever put to film.

Starring Venezulan actor Édgar Ramírez as the Venezuelan-born terrorist, Assayas’ film begins in 1973 when Mohammed Boudia, a representative of the Popular Front of the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) is killed in a car bomb by Mossad. Carlos, born from a strongly Marxist family, goes to Beirut and asks to take over Boudia’s position, setting off a journey that jumps from continent to continent, as his bloody supremacy includes assassination attempts, bombings and hostage situations.

Ramírez is a revelation as Carlos, altering his body from the resistance fighter’s trim, younger days to the terrorist’s final, overweight incarnation when the French authorities catch up to him in Khartoum. Despite his rhetoric, Carlos is fighting for only Carlos. “Assayas eschews all the psychologizing and moralizing that would mar a typical American treatment of this topic,” writes film professor Colin MacCabe. Which is true. Carlos is a fiction that circles around true events, but Assayas films his Jackal in a resolute cinéma vérité manner, treating each scene as if it’s unfolding for the very first time. His camera bobs and weaves, chases desperate terrorists around tight corners and narrow hallways. But he does nothing to explain what makes Carlos tick. He simply lets the terrorist’s actions speak on their own.

There is a scene early in the film where Carlos, after pulling off his first hit, walks out of the shower and stands triumphant in front of the mirror. With his buttocks clenched, he takes a moment to fondle himself, this one gesture speaking more of the character than the reams of manifestos and edicts he issues. Carlos terrorizes for the sheer pleasure of the notoriety. Despite his rants about the petit bourgeoisie and the evils of American imperialism, Carlos spends the film drinking fine whiskey, bedding gorgeous women, staying in five-star hotels, getting liposuction and even signing an autograph for a hostage. As his exterior changes from a dashing young man to a fat, balding monster, Assayas charts Carlos’ putrefaction from the inside out.

Though Carlos is implicitly an action film, it also serves as a grand history lesson about the wave of terror that swept Europe in the seventies as far-left groups grabbed guns and took hostages. For every heart-stopping action sequence (such as the 1975 Vienna OPEC hostage crisis), Assayas also populates his film with clandestine meetings, backroom dealings involving everyone from the Stasi in Eastern Germany to the KGB in the USSR to the Mukhabarat in Syria. Familiar names from Gaddafi to Saddam Hussein to Yassir Arafat all populate the film in archival footage and rumor. It’s a bold undertaking Assayas takes, but he has the benefit of a long running time to tie all loose narratives together.

Assayas also recognizes that this is a truly international endeavor and rather than use French as a stand-in for every language, each idiom appears in its accurate form. Carlos speaks Spanish, French, Arabic, German and English and does so throughout the film, nimbly flitting from one dialect to another (Ramírez spoke four of those languages prior to production, learning Arabic for the role). This creates a more authentic experience, one which more filmmakers should endeavor to follow.

Assayas’ Carlos is a man of contradictions, an unrepentant boozehound and womanizer. For an art house film, Carlos certainly has its share of shocking violence and nudity. From Ramírez’s star-making turn to its gripping sense of suspense, Carlos is anything but a slog at its epic length. This is essential viewing, a brave film of scope and ambition about a man and a time and its repercussions that are still being felt today.

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