Edited down from the five-and-a-half hour original version (which is also available), this nearly three-hour film still feels like an episodic TV series as it covers two decades in the life of the notorious terrorist. But it's expertly made and very well-acted, and some sequences are sharply involving.
When he enters the pro-Palestine terrorist cause in the early 1970s, Venezuelan-born Ilich Sanchez (Ramirez) takes the name "Carlos". For the next 20 years he's one of the most feared figures in Europe, organising attacks and then hiding out in Yemen, Syria and Sudan, or anywhere else he can find asylum.
From assassinations to bombings to hijackings, he earns his reputation for ruthlessness but also alienates his boss (Kaabour) by refusing to take orders.
And as the French counter-terrorism squad closes in on him, he finds his options shrinking.
Assayas is a skilled, assured filmmaker who propels us through this story by focussing on characters rather than action. He also deftly uses settings that traverse Europe, North Africa and the Middle East to ground the events in the people involved. As a result, the terrorism set pieces feel much more vivid and meaningful, although this is fairly limited to the impact they have on Carlos, not the victims or society at large.
While this tight focus makes the film watchable, it also undermines the story's resonance. More difficult is the lurching structure, which leaps between time periods (at one point skipping 10 years) to tell a series of contained stories.
This betrays the project's origin as three feature-length TV movies (which are apparently more fluid) and keeps the narrative from building real momentum.
Even so, Ramirez fearlessly digs into the character, from the (literally) naked ambition of the young idealist to his later conflicts as a family man with physical problems who feels trapped in his hideout. Despite the fact that Carlos is a fiery, brutal thug, we're surprised that we begin to sympathise with his humanity. And this is what makes the film important. On the other hand, it would have been much stronger if it had been produced as a feature with more narrative focus and a stronger emotional punch.