Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, a classic of political filmmaking from 1965, has gotten its theatrical rerelease by Rialto Pictures and reignited controversy as commentators have attempted to either establish or dispel its relation to current events. While it’s true that the film’s specific context is Algeria’s fight for independence from colonial France beginning in ’54, its riveting depiction of miltary occupation, checkpoints and curfews, terrorist insurgency, and the collective will of a people forging a national identity has undeniable contemporary relevance.
Pontecorvo once described the film as a “hymn . . . in homage to the people who must struggle for independence, not only in Algeria, but everywhere in the third world,” and his musical analogy is appropriate for two reasons: his film is more lyrical in approach than historically comprehensive and it benefits from a pounding score he helped to compose. Pontecorvo focuses on the battle in the streets of Algiers, but much of the Algerian revolution occurred in the countryside. Thus, although the French squelch the urban insurrection by ’57, the widespread Algerian will that seems to reemerge in Algiers in ’60 is merely a continuation of the revolution occurring in the napalm-emblazoned mountains and countryside. After 130 years of colonial occupation, France declared Algeria’s independence in ’62.
Filmed with a handheld camera and available light in the city’s European and Casbah sectors and employing nonprofessional actors in major roles, the film is aesthetically linked to postwar Italian neorealism. (Pontecorvo cites Roberto Rossellini’s Paisan as the single film which inspired him to become a filmmaker.) The movie’s formal energy is perhaps its most startling aspect, as riots, cafÈ bombings, and street killings erupt on the screen in seemingly random and unexpected ways while Pontecorvo’s immersive, documentary-like camerawork captures it all.
Pontecorvo fought against the fascists in Milan during WWII and he clearly harbors sympathy for the Algerian rebels (most often conveyed through his use of music), but he never succumbs to caricature, presenting the French with admirable even-handedness. (Even too much even-handedness, some have argued, as the central section of Pontecorvo’s plot is structured around a French bombing and three Algerian counterattacks, reversing the power differential of a technological war in which 20,000 French soldiers were killed versus over a million Algerians.)
The film also stresses the importance of media propaganda in post-WWII military actions. Exposition is relayed through offscreen radio broadcasts. Talking to the international press that was inaccessible to Algerians, the charismatic but ruthless Colonel Matthieu (a composite of several real-life French commanders played by Jean Martin, the only professional actor in the film) states that a victory in Algeria will be decided by them alone. “You want us to enlist?” one of the reporters asks. “No, we have enough fighters,” Matthieu answers. “You only need to write. And write well.” When a journalist suggests an Algerian strike was a success, Matthieu fires back, “Who do you believe, the Algerians?” and effortlessly provides spin control, claiming the strikers had really wanted a riot. The reporters scribble away.
Although the film has been criticized for clumping together all the Algerians (despite their numerous factions) into one ideological force and the French into another (despite the varied interests of their economic classes), it derives some of its most memorable scenes through their juxtaposition. Early in the film, the future revolutionary leader Ali La Pointe (played by Brahim Haggiag, a local farmer) is tripped by some wealthy French youth while he runs from the police–he decides to get up and strike one of the youth instead of escaping. Several scenes establish the culture clash between the poor inhabitants of the Casbah and the middle class French cafÈs, sites of anguishing bomb detonations which Pontecorvo refuses to gloss over. In another scene, a hapless, elderly Algerian unexpectedly becomes the focus of bourgeois fear and hatred as people identify him from the windows of their high rise apartments and in the heat of the moment, hysteria inexorably mounts.
With the exception of a few recurring characters, The Battle of Algiers is also famous for its use of the “collective hero” reminiscent of Sergei Eisenstein’s films. Instead of providing a single protagonist for audience identification, Pontecorvo shifts empathy from person to person, scene to scene, as his plot requires. This isn’t a story about one hero or one villain, but masses of people wading through history.
The film ends with Algerian independence, but as with all stories, history continues to march on. The new country experienced many more years of strife and in-fighting among its various factions, untrained in statemanship, and it continued to struggle under the yoke of neocolonialism and Western cultural and economic dominance. After Colonel Matthieu arrives in Algiers and meets with his military planners, they ask him to name his operation. Glancing randomly around the cityscape, he spots a billboard with the words BUVEZ CHAMPAGNE and decides on “Operation Champagne.” The name is not without its cruel implications: while the paratroopers bear down on the Algerian population, rounding up suspects and even torturing them for informational leads, the famed export drink symbolizes the economic power sustained by the toil of those who remain impoverished.
The Battle of Algiers is touring the US, but will appear as a Criterion Collection DVD in the coming months. The best quality QuickTime trailer can be viewed here.