Gillo Pontecorvo’s bleak and brutal study of occupation and resistance is a troubling masterpiece, asking questions about the othering of political opponents in war and revolution.
While British cult movie fans were gushing – or complaining – about CultFilms’ new 4K remastering of Dario Argento’s Suspiria (which we didn’t get to review, unfortunately), an equally important film was being lined up for re-release by the label in a similarly remastered edition. That The Battle of Algiers has only had a fraction of the attention lavished on Argento’s film is a depressing reflection on how classic cinema can often be overlooked if it doesn’t have a genre fan base.
One of the seminal films of the 1960s, The Battle of Algiers is arguably more relevant now than at any time since it was first made, given the central story of a growing uprising by an Arab population against foreign occupiers. It also remains a dark, sometimes difficult film that is not quite the even-handed, dispassionate look at the conflict that many have claimed.
The film tells the story of the building resentment in the Algerian capital between 1954 and 1957 at the French colonial occupiers, who treat the Arab locals as second class citizens and engage in brutal human rights violations. A growing guerilla army, the FLN (National Liberation Front) begins to form, almost organically, from disaffected youths and political dissidents, and they start to carry out terrorist attacks against French police officers, businesses and citizens, as well as demanding that the local population return to Islamic ideals, which involves the execution and beating of pimps, drinkers, gamblers and the like. Leading the way in this is Ali la Pointe, a petty criminal who has been radicalised in prison and is now the most ruthless and brutal of the FLN.
In retaliation, the French close off the Casbah, where the Algerians mainly live, and torture captives (including using waterboarding, showing that there are no new atrocities under the sun) to find out information that will lead them to the FLN leaders. But even as they crack down on the insurgents, so the revolt against colonial rule starts to spread to the masses.
The Battle of Algiers is a film that barely seems to have dated, and not just because of obvious parallels with the current situations in the Middle East with the War on Terror. Gillo Pontecorvo’s film was shot in gritty, newsreel style black and white, with a documentary approach, and as such it feels surprisingly fresh – a slice of life rather than a dated study of war, with a production style that brings an authenticity to the narrative. This is helped by the use of non-actors – only Jean Martin, playing French military leader Colonel Mathieu, was a professional actor, and even he did most of his work in the theatre. The rest of the cast are made up of Algerian locals and tourists. This could have led to some awkward performances, but it’s not the case at all – everyone here is utterly convincing as the people they are playing, and their non-movie star looks and lack of familiarity helps make the documentary approach all the more effective.
The standard comment on The Battle of Algiers is that the film is scrupulously even-handed, but this is a nonsense. Certainly, the film shows atrocities on both sides and allows Colonel Mathieu to be human and sympathetic, even as he ruthlessly wipes out the FLN step by step. But make no mistake – the film’s sympathies lie with the FLN. The film was based on a screenplay by FLN military commander Saadi Yacef, that he wrote while in prison. And although this screenplay was rejected by the Italian producers for being too one-sided, this original source and the fact that Yacef was the film’s producer – not to mention Pontecorvo’s typical mid-Sixties Italian filmmaker’s far-left leanings – ensures that the film’s sympathies lie with the FLN, even if it doesn’t gloss over some of the terrible things that they do. This isn’t a criticism as such – any film with a narrative and characters (many of whom were fictionalised or amalgams of several real people) would struggle to be thoroughly even-handed in its approach to a subject like this, and if it succeeded, would probably be fatally compromised. The natural point of sympathy in any film is with the oppressed, and The Battle of Algiers makes it quite clear that the French were a brutal and undemocratic occupying force. Here, our main protagonist is Ali la Pointe, who is the only thing close to a lead character until Mathieu arrives much later in the film – it’s natural that we therefore see events through his eyes.
La Pointe is an interesting character, actually – while the film clearly wants us to sympathise with his desperation, determination and national pride, he often comes across as rather psychotic and kill-happy. He’s certainly not averse to gunning down anyone who crosses him, and that isn’t just the French. The rest of the FLN leadership seem like freedom fighters, but La Pointe is unquestionably a terrorist, and the sort who you imagine might have been a dangerous character to have running loose in a liberated Algiers. It’s perhaps this portrayal that could be argued gives the film a neutral perspective – its leading character is a somewhat flawed one. But I’d argue that La Pointe’s flaws are somewhat justified by the filmmakers, and (spoiler alert, though the film opens with this and then tells the story in flashback) his death is a heroic sacrifice here.
Such minutiae – and I go into this simply because I’m always fascinated by people who see balance where there is bias when it fits with their own world view – is hardly important. And I shouldn’t over-egg the point. The Battle of Algiers is far from being a propaganda piece. Rather, it is a brutal and uncompromised look at urban guerilla war – a film so potent that it influenced a whole generation of terrorist groups, ironically, who managed to overlook the human costs of such conflicts on both sides. The film itself doesn’t shy away from the horror – there are some moments that will make you take a deep breath as bodies are pulled from the rubble, people are gunned down in cold blood and innocent civilians suddenly torn apart by bombs placed under tables. The message might be that the end justifies the means (and whether the film is deliberately suggesting that might be a point of debate), but it never sugar-coats just what happens when you bomb a building packed with people.
The Battle of Algiers remains an extraordinary, challenging film – grand in scale yet intimate in detail. It’s one of the greats of 1960s Italian cinema, and this new edition is essential viewing.
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