The highpoint of the Cannes Film Festival 2010 by a considerable distance was Olivier Assayas's five-and-a-half hour long cut of Carlos. It traces the career of Marxist freedom fighter - cum-terrorist-cum-mercenary - Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, otherwise known as Carlos the Jackal, over the course of more than 20 years, across numerous countries. The film is brilliantly paced and masterfully managed, given its scope and complexity.
Even given its extended running-time, this is an impressive feat of concision and clarity, with each chapter in Carlos's life as one of the world's most wanted men clearly established in the swirl of global action and politics. During the final two-hour third act, in which Carlos moves repeatedly in search of countries that will offer him protection from the French authorities, the rhythm and style that Assayas and lead Edgar Ramirez (Che, The Bourne Ultimatum) have maintained from the start really starts to pay off. Even if you're feeling tired or overwhelmed by this point, you know exactly how to follow the character and the action. A film such as this could have opted for all sorts of tricky devices and structures to keep an audience hooked, but Assayas - a classicist at heart (and an experimentalist only when he's laid the necessary foundations) - puts his head down and proceeds with great narrative purpose in chronological fashion.
Supercharging the already authoritative storytelling, Carlos features some thrilling action/suspense set pieces. One such episode - the raid on the Opec headquarters - transitions from a tense, blazing shootout into the dramatic extended hostage situation in which Carlos held various Middle East oilmen hostage, eventually leading him into a negotiation that found him essentially trading principles for cash, altering his reputation for good.
The film is structured in three parts, each running approximately two hours with the second part the shortest. A more conventional feature-length version of the film running two-hours and forty-minutes has also been prepared, but frankly it's hard to see how you could lose three hours from this and still have a meaningful experience. If anyone can make even that work it's Assayas, but for now it's hard to imagine experiencing Carlos in any other form.