For three nights and nearly six mesmerizing hours, you witness a legendary terrorist on an epic scale from up-close-and-personal proximity.
The film is "Carlos," a documentary-like dramatization of Carlos the Jackal, who even today inspires dread and fascination for his vicious attacks in Europe and the Middle East from the 1970s until his arrest as a sick, tired has-been in 1994.
It is directed by acclaimed French filmmaker Olivier Assayas, who chronicles two decades of Carlos’ exploits in a production that trails him on three continents and numerous nations that include Austria, France, Germany, Hungary, Lebanon and Morocco.
"Behind every bullet we fire, there will be an idea," declares Carlos, who has a gift for rousing, self-serving rhetoric.
But the ideas propelling him appear to be in fierce contradiction, and adaptable as needed. He is a pro-Palestinian activist, a self-avowed champion of the oppressed against imperialists, an arms merchant, an assassin for hire, and a vain, irresistible ladies’ man.
He launches daring, even mad schemes, notably the one where he and his team take OPEC oil ministers hostage during their conference in Vienna in 1975. (A failed mission, Carlos spun it as a triumph.)
He’s an enigmatic rock star who falls victim to his own growing mystique, who reads his own press.
In the title role is Edgar Ramirez, a rising international star who has earned the growing excitement that surrounds him. His portrayal of Carlos is a heady brew of passion, raw energy, charisma and brutishness.
He embodies a figure guided by dramatic impulse as much as the wisdom of history. He remains somewhat a mystery. You cannot take your eyes off him.
"We never intended to do a biography or a docudrama on the real Carlos," explains Ramirez, who, in person, is soft-spoken and reflective. "Carlos was already a character fabricated by the media, by the radical groups of the time, by the governments involved, by he himself. So what we tried to do in the movie was to explore the human being that might have existed behind the myth of The Jackal."
Carlos, who was born in Venezuela as Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, happens to share the homeland and the name Ramirez with the 33-year-old actor who plays him.
Edgar Ramirez got his start in 2003 in a Venezuelan soap opera, then, two years later, made his film debut in the Tony Scott feature "Domino." He was in the thriller "Vantage Point" and played the role of Paz, a Blackbriar assassin, in "The Bourne Ultimatum."
But none of these projects imposed the challenges of "Carlos," which he describes as "a train that just departed from one train station, and never stopped." At least, not until production wrapped after seven grueling, nation-hopping months in July 2009, leaving Ramirez physically and emotionally sapped.
Ramirez is on camera for most of the script’s 300 pages. (An alternative two and one-half hour version of the film will be released this month in US theaters.) As the multilingual Carlos, he handles dialogue in English, Spanish, French, German and Arabic (all of which Ramirez speaks in real life, except Arabic, which he learned phonetically).
As the shoot progressed, he was also obliged to add 35 pounds of bulk to his lean, sculpted physique (the film’s final two hours were shot in sequence, he says, with his pasta-fueled pudge increasingly in evidence).
Meanwhile, he found Carlos’ phantom-like psyche tough to penetrate.
"It was hard for me to integrate and make the character mine, and justify his behavior," Ramirez says.
He found certain scenes particularly troubling. French domestic intelligence police arrive at a Paris apartment where Carlos and other militants are drinking and singing revolutionary songs. The police have questions for Carlos. He dismisses their concerns. He doesn’t break a sweat. He serves one officer a whiskey. Then he guns them down in cold blood. With feral gasps of outrage and relief, he flees.
The scene was shot in the building where such an actual ambush took place at the hand of the real Carlos, says Ramirez, who adds, "My dressing room was the actual apartment where those killings happened. That was interesting," he says with a shudder. "That was hard."
Ramirez describes "Carlos" as "a movie about politics, but it’s not political," and he found to his satisfaction that the film’s director agreed.
Neither Ramirez nor Assayas (who also co-wrote the script) was able to meet the real Carlos, currently serving a life sentence in France for killing the police officers.
But Assayas, whose films include "Summer Hours" and "Clean," has "a real and deep fascination for human nature," Ramirez says. "He would let himself be surprised by what was happening on camera. The actors really appreciated it."
They were grateful, too, for Assayas’ ability to keep the marathon production in efficient high-rev mode while being game to steer it, when called for, somewhere into the unknown.
Ramirez recalls a lunch break with two co-stars and Assayas before they shot a scene in Paris.
Alexander Scheer (who plays German terrorist Johannes Weinrich) confided, "Guys, I don’t really know how to play this."
Nora Von Waldstatten chimed in, "I’m not sure how I’m going to portray (Carlos’ wife) Magdalena."
"And I go, ‘I have no idea how to play MY character.’
"And then suddenly Olivier says, ‘I’m very happy to hear you all — because I have no idea how I’m going to shoot this scene.’"
Which, nonetheless, they all proceeded to do.
How, then, to get ready? "You never get ready," replied Ramirez with a laugh. He had thrown himself into the role and its historical period beforehand. Then he hit a wall. "At a certain point, you just have to DO it."
Otherwise you miss the exciting ride. Viewers, too. Attention, everybody, all aboard for "Carlos!"