[Note: this is the ninth film in my 2016 Blind Spot series. For a list of the other well-known or well-respected films I’ve already watched or I’m going to be watching for the first time this year, see this post.]
Gillo Pontecorvo spent his early years as a director making documentary films, so it’s not surprising that his most famous dramatic feature – 1966’s The Battle Of Algiers – often looks and feels like a doc, or newsreel footage. You can see the influence of Roberto Rossellini and Italian neorealism in this black and white dramatisation of the urban battle between French troops and Algerian insurgents during the Algerian War; away from the violence there’s an emphasis on daily street scenes and naturalistic conversations taking place within the slums of Algiers, often featuring non-professional actors. In fact The Battle Of Algiers looks and feels as real as any drama I can think of, despite everything that tells us otherwise: cameras have been set up beforehand to capture different angles; the pace of the editing is in sync with the level of threat on screen; you can hear a score by Ennio Morricone as the action unfolds; and no-one actually dies when they’re shot, of course. But it’s as near as cinema can get.
It’s a visceral experience that tries to show how and why conflicts escalate between opposing factions, and the director includes his own versions of some of the more unpalatable images that one associates with restaurant bombings or brutality by armed forces. In one scene we see a bomb dropped off in one café in a handbag; the camera then moves from the bag, which has been stashed under a seat, and lingers on the unsuspecting faces of the patrons, forcing us to acknowledge that these people are about to die, that the life in them will soon be extinguished. The explosions in The Battle Of Algiers kill the young and the old, they feel real, and it’s clear that Pontecorvo went to great lenghts not to sanitise or tone down the imagery. With that in mind, it’s unsurprising that it fell foul of censors in some countries upon release. In fact it was banned in France for over five years, where Pontecorvo was heavily criticised for favouring the Algerian FLN (National Liberation Front) in his finished work. As I had little prior knowledge of the conflict it’s hard to say whether such a criticism is justified or not, though I will say the film seemed fairly balanced to me before I read about the ban. True, it was the first independent Algerian film production, and we see a lot of the action from the perspective of Ali la Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), a petty criminal who becomes radicalised while he’s in prison by El-hadi Jafar (Saadi Yacef). But we also see plenty of Jean Martin’s Coloniel Mathieu too, and the behaviour of soldiers on both sides is reprehensible. Yet we can also see why the characters in the film are forced to do what they do: they’re driven by ideologies, or ideologues, or oppression, or the need to respond, and other reasons.
The film’s fame, or notoriety, comes partly from its status as a key text in the subject of urban guerilla warfare. The tactics used by the FLN that are depicted in The Battle Of Algiers apparently inspired the Black Panthers and the Provisional IRA. It’s said that it was Andreas Baader’s favourite movie. And at the start of the Iraq War the Pentagon held special screenings for staff, with one flyer reading: ‘How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.’ That it was still relevant to a mighty opponent – one that could use satellite imagery, drones and goodness knows what else – 40 years after it was made is quite incredible.
The subject matter makes the film hard to watch. Everything else – the score, Marcello Gatti’s grainy cinematography, the editing, the performances, and so on – seems to be fighting against it so that the finished piece ican be judged a work of art, and The Battle Of Algiers is a work of art. It’s also a social history, a gripping war film, an apparently reliable reconstruction, and a drama that compares and contrasts the structure and culture of its two opposite factions. It has sympathy for the ordinary people of Algiers – whether of French or Algerian origin – who were caught up in the escalating violence, yet it also films them impassively, managing to see both their individual relevance but also their irrelevance to the bigger picture. It’s a film that deals with complex moral issues, and tragedy, but it also has thrilling escapes and shoot-outs in the streets; it’s as entertaining as any of the great Second World War films, or any of the great Vietnam War films. Little wonder it regularly features high-up in Sight & Sound‘s ten-yearly Greatest Films Of All Time poll.
Directed by: Gillo Pontecorvo.
Written by: Gillo Pontecorvo, Franco Solinas.
Starring: Brahim Haggiag, Jean Martin, Saadi Yacef, Tommaso Neri.
Cinematography: Marcello Gatti.
Editing: Mario Morra, Mario Serandrei.
Music: Ennio Morricone, Gillo Pontecorvo.
Running Time: 120 minutes.