Film Review: THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS (1966) GILLO PONTECORVO
By Belle McIntyre
Timed for it’s 50th anniversary, the re-release of this extraordinary, beautifully restored 1967 epic masterpiece is a gift to film lovers and a must for every aspiring filmmaker, writer or director. The brutality and consequences of repression by the powerful over the weak is a story that has unfolded countless times and countless ways throughout human history. Yet it is a lesson that has not been learned and will, no doubt, keep repeating itself. Hence our fascination with it’s manifestations and iterations which reveal character, bravery, cruelty, heroism, resilience, heightened emotional states, etc. All things which make for fascinating drama and provide us with a window to understanding ourselves and our world.
After 125 years under French colonial rule, Algeria has become two distinct cities. The indigenous Arabic population, which is largely segregated in the vibrant, densely populated old sector known as the Casbah, with its crowded, narrow winding streets, and the modern, prosperous European style French sector are worlds apart. The seeds of discontent and the yearning for independence began in the 1950’s as the French were losing their hold on their other North African colonies, Tunisia and Morocco and Indochina. This movement was nurtured and influenced by the Front de Libération Nationale or FLN, operating out of Cairo. When the FLN became actively involved in the Algerian independence movement things rapidly escalated dramatically in violent and deadly ways, including riots, terrorist acts and guerrilla strikes against military installations, police, public utilities and civic institutions. This naturally incited a robust, equally lethal reaction by the French military and the French colonists which continued from 1954 until 1957 when the uprising was put down.
The film gets straight to the point as it opens in the final days of the rebellion, with an old Algerian nationalist, finally breaking down, after days of torture, who reveals the whereabouts of the last surviving freedom fighter. After his tearful forced witnessing of the surrender of the legendary Ali La Pointe, the film jumps back to the genesis of the hostilities. Then we are brought in close to the clandestine meetings among the revolutionary leaders and their elaborate organizational plotting to rally the populace to take up arms and engage in acts of sabotage and simultaneously to protect their leaders identities from the French forces. They are incredibly ingenious and nimble and difficult to apprehend given the maze-like character of the Casbah. Their deeplyfelt anger and resentment are passionate motivations and believable justification for awful acts of sabotage in the name of freedom.
This is balanced with the point of view of the patriotic French commanders who are equally dedicated to quelling the rebellion to keep the peace for the good of the country, or so they believe. They do not see themselves as occupiers, rather protectors of the peace. Unusually, for politically-charged depictions of historical conflicts - both sides are treated with empathy and fairness. It is a tragedy for everyone and it is something that humans just keep doing. The French officers even reveal a certain respect for their opponents and do not take sadistic pleasure in their advantage. Equally, there are glimpses of awareness and regret registered in the eyes of one of the women saboteurs just after she detonates explosives in a cafe full of innocent civilians.
The extraordinary verisimilitude that Pontecorvo has created, filming on location in Algiers using only a few trained actors and thousands of locals as extras is remarkable. One would swear that it is composed of documentary footage, but that is not the case. The character of Ali La Pointe was played by an illiterate peasant discovered in a market. Saadi Yacef, who wrote the book on which the film is based and co-produced, was an Algerian military commanders and plays the same role in the film. The only major role played by a professional actor, Jean Martin, is that of Colonel Mathieu.
It is a cinematic and directorial tour de force which grabs you from the opening scene and never lets go, propelled by a musical score that throbs like a human heartbeat, written by Pontecorvo and Ennio Morricone. The film ends with the defeat of the rebellion by the French but the revolution still had breath. In a coda we learn that the following years attempting to re-negotiate a government more inclusive and fair there was continual unrest and factional infighting from both sides. Finally in 1962, under DeGaulle, a referendum was passed granting Algerian independence. At long last and at such a cost.
It’s a lesser known historical moment but certainly as fascinating as South African and Indian struggles for independence. It is really about the twin opposites of oppression and freedom in general and colonialism in particular. Curiously, the nostalgia invoked and the aesthetic appreciation for colonial architecture all over the developing world, has managed to be completely cleansed of the bloody circumstances which inevitably are at its root. Food for thought.