“The Battle of Algiers,” November 17, 2020 (1966), DVD. This brilliant 1966 film by Gillo Pontecorvo examines the growth of the first years of the Algerian revolution in Algiers. Filmed in the grainy style of a newsreel, this is entirely post-revolutionary, staged footage. It is remarkable and there are reasons this is considered one of the 100 greatest films of the 20th century. Many rank it in the top ten. Written by Pontecorvo and Franco Salinas, it features astounding music by the brilliant Ennio Morricone and Pontecorvo, relying on only one professional actor–more on that later, this film consciously creates what is essentially a chorale cast. It clearly takes an anti-imperialist side, but it does not hide the death and destruction inflicted on and by both sides. That it was filmed with the support and collaboration of the Algerian government makes that even more remarkable. It was banned in France until 1970.
The film follows the development of revolutionary cells and activities within the Casbah, the indigenous quarter, those who experience the abuse of the colons and the racist anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry that frames their lives. You also see those who both serve and collaborate with the French. You witness the divisions of culture and language, but while you see the torture and cruelties of the French occupiers as truly hideous, you also see a strangely balanced portrayal of the damage done in this war. A woman leaving a bomb in a bar looks around and sees the people she’s about to kill as people, they are not simply caricatures. She knows that, and it is clearly troubling even as it does not take her from her task.
As I mentioned, there is only one professional, name actor in the film, Jean Martin. A former French resistance fighter during WWII and a French soldier in Indochina after the war, Martin brought that pedigree to the roll of the French paratrooper colonel sent to repress the uprising. He is fleshed out in ways the rebel ‘heroes’ of the piece aren’t. They remain ‘types,’ be they intellectuals or mass rebels, driven by passion and hatred, or perhaps ideology. None are professional actors. They include, by the way, one of the leaders of the revolution, Saadi Yacef, who was imprisoned and tortured during the battle of Algiers. They are not fleshed out in the same way Martin’s oppressor is and, in some ways, the film suffers for that. Even the central figure of Ali La Pointe, a leader of the revolution, remains unexplored except for his experience of abuse, his rage, his savvy, and his total commitment to the cause.
Still, it is a clear decision of Pontecorvo as director to frame this struggle as one of the collective Algerian people. And to achieve this, he draws from Eisenstein and the Italian Neo-Realists. Pontecorvo’s passion for the project is a reflection of his own background. A Jewish child of privilege prior to WWII, he became a Communist youth organizer and antifascist partisan during the war. He remained in the CP until Hungary forced his resignation. But he remained a man of the left throughout his life, the most dangerous of activists, as Pauline Kael said, “a Marxist poet.” He produced few other films, most notably “Burn” (1969) starring Marlon Brando, another remarkable movie I saw on TV in New York City in the late 1970s. No network would dare to show either of these films today.
Once again, a Criterion DVD provided materials that made this film vastly more accessible to me. Another thank you to that wonderful distributor.