Watch Carlos immediately after Four Lions, as I did, and it seems to hail from a gentler and more civilized (if not exactly kinder or simpler) era of terrorism. Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (nom de guerre Carlos, commonly known as Carlos the Jackal) and his associates don’t want to get blown up with their targets; they advocate sexual liberation, especially if it’s somebody else’s wife being liberated; and they politely request that police negotiators deliver sandwiches without ham for their Muslim hostages. Perfect gentlemen of the left, really, unless you’re a cop. The movie’s central, dazzling set piece—a 1974 raid on an OPEC summit in Vienna—ushers militants, hostages and government envoys onto a jet airliner, and from this vantage it’s a relief to realize that everybody wants the plane to land.
Four Lions is the best movie of the year, but Carlos is surely the most movie: It’s a 5 1/2-hour commitment, though as Carlos himself would say, there is no sacrifice too great for the revolution. Not that watching the work of French director Olivier Assayas is any hardship—from Demonlover to Boarding Gate, no contemporary filmmaker is better at a serious consideration of international brinksmanship, and if Carlos is perhaps a smidgen too comprehensive, it is packed with thrilling cinema. Maybe it was a case of Stockholm syndrome, but when the movie finally ended, I was sort of sorry to say goodbye.
The picture opens with a bang—the Mossad car-bomb assassination of a Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine agent in Paris—and, along with the title character, we are expected to figure out the shifting political landscape for ourselves. Venezuelan Carlos’ dedication to the Arab cause starts out a little suspect: He’s dismissed by one colleague as a playboy, and he certainly seems like a guy who showed up in Paris to throw some grenades and finger some pussy, and he’s just about out of grenades. But his fortunes shift—not for the last time—in an act of gunplay in a girlfriend’s apartment; after Carlos flees, Assayas returns his camera to the student radicals in the flat, frozen in shock at the sudden graduation of violence.
That scene, with the antihero fetching his weapon from the toilet, recalls The Godfather, as does the film’s three-part structure (it was first shown as a miniseries in Europe) and its criminal ambition. As Carlos, however, Édgar Ramírez one-ups Robert DeNiro’s famed Raging Bull weight gains; his bulk is constantly fluctuating, depending on whether Carlos is indulging his appetite for notoriety or his thirst for whiskey-fed indolence. The performance is constantly engrossing—never more than during the brazen OPEC raid, where Carlos preens like a global heir to Che Guevara, but finds his operation descending into farce on a series of tarmacs.
The entirety of Carlos is properly read, I think, as a kind of deadly comedy; confrontations with police float on a cushion of New Wave punk—including great use of Wire’s 1978 single “Dot Dash”—that, with repetition, heighten our awareness of the self-regard these guerrillas hold themselves in, even as they’re often proving to be hopelessly bungling. By movie’s end, Carlos is playing the same backyard-garden children’s hide-and-seek games as Don Corleone. “I rob the world!” he brags, but he’s become the very thing he despises: a petit bourgeois. And he doesn’t really accomplish a thing, except fame. Carlos suggests that terrorism is equally ineffectual whether you burn out or fade away.