"I am no longer Ilich," declares the Venezuelan-born terrorist who would become notorious worldwide under another name. "My name is Carlos."
That self-baptism, at the beginning of a sprawling new film from French director Olivier Assayas, foreshadows a series of spectacular terrorist attacks across Europe -- attacks that, during the 1970s, earned Carlos, born Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, the distinction of being the world's most wanted terrorist. In the 5 1/2-hour Carlos, Assayas tells a complex multilingual story that reveals an era of globalized terrorism that haunted the world long before al-Qaida.
And yes, the director says, that epic running time was absolutely essential.
"In a shorter film, I would have had to condense things, to be much more heavy-handed," Assayas says. "When you have the possibility of dealing with it not exactly in real time, but ... using most of the actual weird, crazy incidents that ultimately are what reality is about, it gives a much more profound, much more interesting, and a much more accurate picture."
The director based his screenplay on extensive research and consultation with journalists and individuals who knew the real Carlos. While Assayas acknowledges that he had to fictionalize dialogue and ancillary characters, he insists the film is as factual as he could make it.
He also says he couldn't have made the film before now -- that distance from the real events allowed for a kind of understanding that wouldn't have been possible two decades ago.
Assayas began writing Carlos almost two years ago while he was still finishing a much quieter, gentler film about family, called Summer Hours. The two pictures couldn't be more different. Carlos is a political thriller, filled with explosive action sequences, violent confrontations and sex. It was filmed in Europe and the Middle East, and there are countless languages and characters on-screen.
"The story has to do with revolutionary internationalism," Assayas says. "It involved beliefs that connected Middle Eastern guys with Europeans, and so the issue was how those guys functioned together."
The leftist revolutionary movements that terrorized European capitals during the '70s were the products of post-Vietnam disillusionment among privileged youth living in Europe, according to terrorism expert Louise Richardson. But, she adds, "they were altogether more articulate in their criticisms than in spelling out how the new society would look."
That lack of clarity bred insecurity and paranoia among these movements, and in the film's final act, the title character becomes a pawn in the Cold War. He was eventually arrested in Sudan in August 1994.
Actor Edgar Ramirez, who plays Carlos in the film, says the story underscores the complicated ethos that drove young people of privilege to take action. "Carlos embodies the revolutionary ideals of his time, but also the quest for fame, recognition and a place in history," says Ramirez.
Assayas adds that to have an understanding of today's terrorists, contemporary filmmakers would also benefit from the passage of time.
"The message is, if we can do this about the past, someone will be able to do this about our own boogeymen in the not so distant future."