by Allan Fish
(Italy/France/Algeria 1965 121m) DVD1/2
Aka. Maarakat Alger/La Battaglia di Algeri
You don’t win battles with outrages
p Antonio Musu, Yacef Saadi d Gillo Pontecorvo w Franco Solinas ph Marcello Gatti ed Mario Serandrei, Mario Morra m Ennio Morricone, Gillo Pontecorvo
Brahim Hagiag (Ali la Pointe), Jean Martin (Colonel Mathieu), Yacef Saadi (Kader), Tomasso Neri (Captain Dubois), Fawzia el Kader (Halima), Michele Kerbash (Fathia), Mohamed Ben Kassen (Little Omar),
Among the fearsome mountain range that is political cinema, there is one peak that stands tall above all others. For sure, such classics as The Manchurian Candidate, Memories of Underdevelopment, Z, and any one of a handful of Andrzej Wajda films have their merits as peaks, but the zenith of this artform within an artform came in 1965 with Gillo Pontecorvo’s still seminal masterpiece. The Battle of Algiers is a political film unlike any dreamt of by Hollywood, and is all the better for it.
Pontecorvo’s film begins in 1957, with a captured Algerian resistance member forced to give up the hiding place of the last of the leaders of the National Liberation Front of Algeria (FLN). Paratroopers storm the hideout and threaten the leader, Ali la Pointe, with death for both him and his family trapped with him unless he surrenders. At which point we go back three years to 1954 and the first signs of rebellion in Algiers and follow the leaders of both the colonialists and revolutionaries, up until that fateful moment when the last member of the FLN is wiped out. Almost as an afterthought, we are shown the final uprisings of 1960 that finally lead to the declaration of their independence in 1962.
Though taking some of its inspiration from Wajda’s Generation trilogy and, particularly, Rossellini’s Open City, Pontecorvo’s film leaves behind a very different aftertaste, mixing documentary realism with a non-judgemental view of proceedings. Of course it’s easy to see that the director’s sympathies lie with the revolutionaries, but they are not shown as martyrs, nor are French colonialists shown as despots in the style so loved by the one dimensional film-makers and writers in Hollywood. He shows that each side believed in the justice of their cause and the inherent prejudice of their enemies’ cause. The revolutionaries are not deified at all, as we are shown atrocities committed by them (random shootings from a hijacked ambulance and the bombing of the grandstand of a local trotting track) to rival anything perpetrated by the French.
Much has been made of the documentary feel of the film, and certainly that is helped by the editing style, which perfectly compliments the urgency of Morricone’s iconic score (one of his very best, and most overlooked) and Pontecorvo’s unwavering directorial vision. Not forgetting the deliberately grainy photography, the aptness of which adds to the feel of authenticity that sharp clear images would have falsified. Such a visual style brings its own beauty; one particularly recalls the shot late on of the Kasbah at night during the 1960 uprising, when the nightmarish screech of the rebels is heard, a sort of hybrid of the Rebel Yell of Southern legend and the giant ant noises from fifties sci-fi flick Them. As for the performances, one can only be full of admiration for its almost exclusively non-professional cast (the only exception being Jean Martin, memorable as the fatalistic but duty bound Colonel, who justly cries against those who accuse the forces of fascism by mentioning that many of them fought in the Resistance against that very political ideal) and for the way in which Pontecorvo handles them. Forty years ago, upon its release, the future looked bright for its director, but after the critical disaster of the Brando film Queimada, he barely worked again. The Venice Golden Lion might have looked good on the mantelpiece, but it’s scant compensation for a career and talent unfulfilled. The best postscript one can give is that, even now, the film is a hot potato in France, and as a study of the effectiveness or otherwise of terrorism as a means to an end, it’s lost none of its relevance, but rather gained in potency.