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  Movies are full of heroic gunslingers, thieves and mobsters, but it's not easy to see a terrorist in such a distorted but positive light. Olivier Assayas' stunning three-part saga Carlos doesn't strive for that, but Edgar Ramirez is so charismatic, passionate and ruthless as the notorious Ilich "Carlos" Ramirez Sanchez that one watches the alluringly dark thriller with a mix of horror and fascination, even as the terrorist mastermind becomes ever more menacing and unhinged.

  A native of Venezuela with a Leninist father, Carlos was born into revolutionary fervor. He was educated in Moscow and committed himself to a worldwide revolution against imperialism. In the 1970s, he took up the cause of the Palestinians and began a long career of terrorist activities in Europe. The film starts with his first assassination attempt and follows as he becomes active with various left wing terror groups, including the Japanese Red Army. The five and a half hour film is divided into three parts, and the middle segment is almost entirely concerned with the event he is best known for — taking hostages at an OPEC meeting in Vienna in 1975 and later negotiating an end to the ordeal in Algeria.

  Carlos goes on to create his own network and works for various governments while under the veiled protection of Syria and to some extent the Soviet Union. The political intrigue intensifies as the Soviet bloc crumbles and the shadow world of spies, revolutionaries, terrorists and criminals becomes ever more chaotic. Carlos seems to transform from warrior for a cause to mercenary, which somehow seems even more vile and corrupt. Assayas is a bit heavy handed about mirroring his decline by focusing increasingly on his cheating on both lovers and his wife, but it opens up the inquiry into what drives a man to the egotistical extremes Carlos embraced. He loses no sleep worrying about the future, and in some ways, irrelevance is harder on him than the prospect of death or capture.

  It's a gripping work full of great performances. The polyglot film is partially in English and subtitled when not. Parts one and two screen on Saturday. One ticket is good for both days. $15 general admission, $12 New Orleans Film Society members. — Will Coviello

Jan. 15

Carlos (Parts 1 & 2)

2:30 p.m. Saturday

Jan. 16

Carlos (Part 3)

2:30 p.m. Sunday

Prytania Theatre, 5339 Prytania St., 891-2787; www.theprytania.com or www.neworleansfilmsociety.org

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