There’s a bit of controversy surrounding the nature of this picture, which, if I’ve got this right, was originally conceived as a TV mini-series before someone decided to release it theatrically as a movie. Two movies, actually: one a condensed 3-hour version, and the other encompassing the full 5.5 hours of the mini-series (the latter is the one I saw).

Now, whatever the intention was at the beginning, it’s easy to see why one would want this to be considered as a film, because every frame of “Carlos” screams cinema. The epic scope, the relentless narrative drive, the complexity and the density of the storytelling, the way archival footage is weaved throughout, the rich tapestry of characters, the gorgeously stylish cinematography, the riveting set pieces, the use of songs by artists like The Feelies, New Order, A Certain Ratio, Wire, The Dead Boys and The Lightning Seeds… This is truly some of the best filmmaking I’ve seen all year.

Édgar Ramírez stars as Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, aka Carlos, who from 1973 to 1994, was involved in numerous acts of international terrorism: assassination attempts, bombings, hostage takings (including the 1975 raid on the OPEC headquarters in Vienna)… A Venezuelan, he fought for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and for anti-imperialism in general, along with comrades from the Middle East, Japan, Germany and other places around the world. This doesn’t quite make sense, to a non-militant person like me anyway, but even though I didn’t fully understand the politics of the guy and certainly didn’t approve of his methods, there’s no denying that he makes for a truly compelling movie antihero, especially as portrayed by Ramírez, who manages to be alternately cool, sexy, badass, arrogant and loathsome.

As brilliantly directed by Olivier Assayas, “Carlos” calls to mind the great espionage thrillers and gangster films of the 1970s, as well as some more recent works such as “Munich” but in reverse (here the protagonist is pro-Palestine, anti-Israel) and “Che”, the protagonist of which is name-checked early on as an example of how revolutionaries tend to end up dead (which, as you can guess, didn’t stop Carlos from soldiering on anyway).

To be honest, the 330-minute running length of the uncut version is a bit much to sit through. Some of the third part, the stuff with Carlos’ wife for instance, is not all that interesting, and the ending is rather anticlimactic. Of course, there was no avoiding that considering how, even though he often repeated that it was destiny to die in a blaze of bullets, he ended up getting arrested while he was in the hospital because his testicles hurt, for chrissakes! Still, on the whole, Assayas’ film packs a whole lot of excitement and remains a must-see.