Known as a master of disguises, a master manipulator, and a tactical genius, Carlos was a media darling, who managed to spin his life into a "fantastical narrative . . . for his own self-aggrandizement," says Assayas.
Assayas, whose films include the Juliette Binoche chamber piece Summer Hours and the erotic techno-thriller Demonlover, set out to dissect the myth, basing the film on recently declassified documents, court records, and firsthand accounts.
In an ironic development, Carlos, who was arrested in 1994 and is serving a life sentence at La Santé Prison in Paris for a triple murder, has threatened to sue the filmmakers for marring his image.
Assayas isn't impressed. "Carlos has never told the truth," says the director, who made no attempt to consult the terrorist in making the film.
Born in Venezuela as Ilich Ramírez Sánchez - he was named after his father's hero, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin - Carlos was trained at a guerrilla warfare school in Cuba before studying economics in Moscow. His career began when he joined the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which sent him on missions in England and France.
The film ignores Carlos' early years, concentrating instead on his career, including an infamous 1975 raid on the OPEC headquarters in Vienna, which involved hostages, hijacked planes, and the murders of three people. That attack is shown in dazzling detail in the film's propulsive second section.
Carlos is not short on blood and violence, but it really gets under your skin with its brilliant characterization.
The film opens in 1973 when the then 23-year-old terrorist-in-training sets out on his first London mission.
Assayas sets the tone with ruthless efficiency in one of the film's earliest and most memorable set-pieces.
Carlos, played with preternatural intensity by fellow Venezuelan Edgar Ramírez (no relation to Carlos), rushes into the London flat of a prominent Jewish businessman and, without preamble, shoots him in the face.
Carlos' demeanor is strange and seriously creepy: He's nervous, but also clearly turned on by the experience.
When next we see him, Carlos - charismatic and athletic, with thick, dark hair - is luxuriating in a bubble bath in a swank hotel.
Things become a bit surreal when the naked Carlos spends two very long minutes preening in a full-length mirror.
The conjunction of the shooting and the squirm-inducing hotel sequence establish Carlos as one of the most unsettling film presences in recent memory.
"The scene was completely about the narcissism that drives Carlos and that is a defining element of his character," Assayas says. "It felt to me obvious that it had to be inserted into the film in a brutal way."
Assayas hopes the scene will challenge an audience that may be expecting a straightforward thriller.
"It's a violent way to take the narrative a step further than the audience expects," he says. "Just the brutal act of showing the nakedness of Carlos is something that kind of changes the rules."
It's a sure-fire way to wrench Carlos out of fantasy and into reality, says Ramírez, who had an intense turn as an assassin in The Bourne Ultimatum.
"It was a challenging scene to play, but it was important to show that Carlos thought of himself as having a manifest destiny," says Ramírez, 33, "that he was illuminated somehow. . . . That scene establishes the essence behind the man."
Ramírez says he gravitated to the role because of its complexity. Carlos, to him, is defined by contradiction.
"This is a guy who acts as if he is a totally hardcore Marxist-Leninist revolutionary and yet who would buy his clothes at Harrods and wear Pierre Cardin . . . and eat caviar."
Carlos spent the latter part of his career amassing millions of dollars as a mercenary and weapons smuggler, which raises the question: Did he follow a political ideology or was he a cynic?
"I think he became his own ideology," Ramírez says, "a prophet whose message was Carlos himself."
Assayas says Carlos has been his most complex project: The $18 million film was shot over seven months in nine countries. It had more than 120 actors delivering dialogue in 11 languages. (Ramírez speaks five.)
Assayas says his greatest anxiety didn't come from logistical problems, but from the subject matter.
"To me, it was a question of how I would deal with that character every day. He's a violent, brutal man . . . and I felt I would somehow be contaminated by his proximity."
Ramírez, who gained 35 pounds to play Carlos in middle age, is more sanguine. His problems with Carlos were more philosophical.
"I had to battle with the idea that for people like [Carlos] the value of human life is negotiable, that people are expendable," he says. "No political or ideological conviction justifies the sacrifices of a human life."
Showtimes for 'Carlos'
On TV: The full-length, 355-minute edition of Carlos will be shown in three parts on Sundance Channel at 9 p.m. Monday through Wednesday. It will be available on Video On Demand starting Oct. 20.
In Theaters: Two versions of Carlos will screen between Oct. 22 and Oct. 28 at The Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut St.
The 355-minute cut will be shown in a one-sitting marathon, with screenings Oct. 22 through Oct. 24. (The Oct. 23 screening will be presented in conjunction with the Philadelphia Film Festival).
The shorter, 165-minute version, Carlos: The Theatrical Edition, will screen Oct. 25 through Oct. 28.
com/carlos/ or http://www.filmadelphia.org/
Contact staff writer Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or firstname.lastname@example.org.