Often cited in critics’ surveys as one of the greatest movies of all time, and winner of numerous awards, including the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival 1966, Gillo Pontecorvo’s “The Battle of Algiers” is now getting its first ever UK Blu-ray release this month, launching Argent Films’ new HD collection with a newly re-mastered High Definition transfer taken from the original uncut 35mm print, on what is the 50th anniversary of the Algerian independence the film documents. It’s a stark, dispassionate but authentic feeling account of a three year period which turned out to be a key episode in the guerrilla mounted ‘war of liberation’ which took place across the North African country of Algeria between 1954 and 1962, waged by the Arab-Muslim independence group calling itself the Front de Libération nationale (FLN) against a French colonial rule which had existed in the region since 1830.
From the mid-nineteenth century onward, 50,000 French and European settlers migrated into the region and their descendants (pejoratively termed Pieds-Noirs) came to benefit from land rights often denied to much (but not all – in classic ‘divide and rule’ colonialist fashion) of the indigenous population. Because of this, the ensuing guerrilla war became a complex conflict made up of irreconcilable warring groups pledged to varying mixtures of nationalist/Islamic or Westernised pro-French values, with a minority of indigenous Arabic-speaking Jews (who had roots in the region stretching back several thousand years) caught in the middle. But although the film was in a sense ‘commissioned’ by the Algerian government which emerged out of the country’s eventual success in gaining its independence, and was based on a memoir, ‘Souvenirs de la Bataille d'Alger’, written by Saadi Yacef -- a man who had been a senior figure in the FLN during its insurgent guerrilla campaign and who went on to become a producer of the film, actually starring in it playing a character based on himself -- Pontecorvo was able to elaborate a position which appears neutral in regard to its sympathies, while remaining a clear indictment of colonialism itself. This was after two screenplays had already been rejected -- one because it reduced Algerian suffering to a backdrop for the French experience and another (written by Yacef himself) because it was deemed by Pontecorvo too biased in favour of the FLN.
Affecting a neorealist approach, in the spirit of the work of Roberto Rossellini and others, the Italian director rejected conventional film grammar to shoot in a manner which often emulates the style and feel of grainy black & white newsreel footage, as though we are witnessing documentary material relating to real proceedings; the film was also innovative at the time in its use of portable hand-held cameras to enhance this appearance of catching events as they were happening on the very streets on which the revolution it recreates had occurred. But in opposition to this stylistic realism, Pontecorvo makes no bones about using music (both his own and that of composer Ennio Morricone) to heighten the drama and to create emotion at pivotal moments in the narrative. So we therefore have a hybrid which simultaneously affects to show a reality from which the filmmakers strive to remain detached, while also highlighting its fundamentally constructed nature as a piece of attention grabbing drama. To add still more complexity and ambiguity to the mix, all the key events shown in the movie actually happened in some form, to the extent that Pontecorvo is able to caption them with the date and exact time they took place, and set them in locations which are completely authentic-looking; while his characters are actually either composites or else have different names to the real-life counterparts on which they were based. The results anticipate the faux docu-drama style of George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” or certain aspects of a great deal of Peter Watkins’ work from around the same period, with all but a few performers being non-professional actors and the locations which are seen on screen the real deal, with untutored passers-by acting as ‘extras’, often staring directly into the camera lens in gritty, vérité imitating street scenes.
Adding to the vivid documentary vibe is the unusual construction of the film, which refuses to focus for too long on the perspective of any one character; instead the story is told by way of a visual collage technique of interleafed vignettes, which end up accumulating a vast array of discrete situations and characters who drift in and out of the narrative in disordered fashion, a technique one would expect under normal circumstances to become confusing to the viewer, but which here is executed with such confidence that it merely elucidates the director’s over-arching grand theme – which is that the practice of colonialism is always doomed to destroy itself.
There is a underlying feeling throughout that Pontecorvo -- who at the time was a member of the Italian Communist Party -- is portraying the events in this conflict as though they were part of a process of historical dialectic materialism, with each documented occurrence depicted playing its own particular connective role in a brutal tapestry of violence, inevitably escalating into a conflict of tit-for-tat reprisals which can only find ultimate resolution in the masses rising up and removing a system of colonialism that becomes increasingly oppressive as the authorities in charge seek to take ever more extreme countermeasures against insurgent acts of ‘terrorism’. Colonialism is seen as an abstract evil in itself, with each participant, from whichever side they represent in the localised conflict, caught up in an inextricable web of connections which historically determine their responses and which add up to, in this case, the French eventually losing the war -- despite apparently spectacularly winning the battle in hand.
Indeed, the film starts at the end of the period of urban warfare it covers (between 1954 and 1957) sometime after the FLN had first taken its battle away from the countryside (where many massacres had already taken place) and into Algiers itself (the heart of French Algeria) for the first time, initiating a series of assassinations aimed at French administrators and soldiers. This resulted in retaliation from pro-French extremists in the security forces, who were the first to plant a bomb in the Arab quarters, killing a number of innocent Arab civilians -- an act which escalated the conflict and led to the FLN then starting its own ruthless bombing campaign. These events are shown to result in scared and angry French settlers forming lynch mobs and carrying out racist mob violence, once again mainly against Arab civilians; and then the army sending in paramilitary units in response to the rebels’ violence, who restrict freedom of movement for Arabs and embark on a ruthless quest to expose and eliminate the leaders of the FLN and thus end the uprising once and for all, explicitly through the systematic use of torture. The film starts with their apparent victory in this campaign when the French torture a broken FLN supporter into revealing the hiding place of Ali La Pointe (Brahim Hadjadj), who is by this point the last remaining lieutenant of the now crippled resistance organisation.
Despite the localised specifics of the politics and the geography involved in the events depicted here, the relevance of the film to contemporary events is impossible to ignore and is made only more potent by the film’s refusal to cast any one side in the role of being either completely heroic or totally villainous; they are all merely participant in a tragically inevitable cycle of historical events made possible by the anachronistic persistence of colonialism. Although the film’s anti-colonial stance ostensibly places it in broad sympathy with the cause of the Arab nationalists, screenwriter Franco Solinas doesn’t shy away from showing negative aspects of some individuals involved in the FLN and is upfront in depicting some of its more unpleasant tactics. In order to build a solid front of support in the Kasbah, for instance, one of the FLN leaders (played by Saadi Yacef) talks about how the Arab quarters must first be cleansed of undesirable un-Islamic elements such as drunks, ‘whores’ and junkies, before the movement is ready to start its assassination programme aimed against the French authorities. Any uncommitted people must be removed: ‘we must convert them or eliminate them,’ he says casually, before sending illiterate former criminal and pimp Ali La Pointe out to cold bloodedly murder a former brothel owning colleague of his. Similarly, although the cold, dispassionate manner in which Pontecorvo starkly depicts the methods of torture used by the French paramilitary forces (and the calculatedly dishonest way it goes about getting approval to carry them out unhindered by existing laws and regulations) shows us the ugliness and brutality of their way of waging war, Colonel Mathieu, the chief architect of the army’s counter-terrorist measures (played by the only professional actor in the film, Jean Martin) is portrayed as a fundamentally decent man with a background in the French Resistance (while the French colonial regime in Algeria he’s now helping, actually supported the Vichy Regime during WW2). Mathieu has a healthy respect for the fact that the leaders of the FLN are as committed to their cause as he is to preserving French interests in Algeria, and he always tries to be honourable in his dealings with them, giving his enemies a fighting chance of surrendering and even allowing the captured Arab leader of the FLN to give a press conference at one point.
This even-handedness, if anything, makes the film an even more disconcerting watch than expected, especially when we witness atrocities being committed by both sides without any clear position, either absolutely for or against them, being overtly expressed; the film instead stands back and looks on without commenting, still using cinematic techniques of propaganda for eliciting a response from the viewer, but often in mutually conflicting ways. For example: one of the most memorable and affecting sequences involves a group of female FLN operatives preparing to plant bombs timed to go off within minutes of each other for maximum impact, in crowed public cafes, milk bars and in the offices of Air France in the European quarter. By this point, the French authorities have set up road blocks and barbed-wire- festooned checkpoints all around this part of the city, manned by troops who stop and check anyone who looks suspicious (i.e. Arab-Muslims). To enter this region then, the women must remove their hijabs, cut their hair in a western style and wear makeup and fashionable European clothes to enable them to slip past the stop-points without arousing interest (apart from the odd attempt by the soldiers to chat them up that is) while innocent Arab workers continue to be stopped and harassed all around them. Despite the documentary style, this whole sequence is shot in such a way as to engender a feeling of increasing suspense in the viewer which disposes us towards identifying with these women and their mission. After entering the European section of the city, they meet up with the FLN chemist who arms their bombs, giving them just twenty-five minutes each to plant them in the target areas and leave the scene before the explosion. Once again, the suspense builds steadily and inexorably as we watch each woman enter the establishment they’ve been sent to destroy, with one eye always on the clock as the deadline comes remorselessly nearer …
But now Pontecorvo’s camera starts lingering on images of the potential victims in the vicinity as well, making it much harder to wholly sympathise with the killers: we see the expressive faces of happy couples, fashionable revellers dancing to the juke box music and an infant child licking an ice cream among the throngs – just the sorts of images that would normally be avoided like the plague if you were trying to justify actions which are just about to end lives which are being summarised here in such potent snapshot vignettes. Using such conflicting methods for inducing and manipulating sympathy, Pontecorvo is able to create a nuanced standpoint on the violence, neither justifying it nor wholly condemning it -- yet always conveying a sense of the wastefulness of innocent human life; when civilians are killed on either side, the same plaintive Morricone piece swells on the soundtrack in melodic supplication to the bleak horror of the wanton destruction wrought by both groups of combatants, whatever the pros or cons of their actions.
Pontecorvo chose the film’s performers based purely on their looks rather than any concern for their acting abilities and nowhere is this practice more vindicated than in the casting of Brahim Hadjadj as Ali La Pointe. The first time actor Hadjadi is superb in conveying the determination-cum-fanaticism which characterises the hot headed young man who gets converted to militant Arab nationalism in prison after he assaults a cocky Pieds-Noir in the European quarter, and goes on to become one of the most loyal exponents of the FLN movement. After depicting the moment of his -- and the FLN’s -- final defeat in 1957, as a result of Mathieu’s piteously methodical counter insurgency thinking, the film flips back to chart his actual beginnings in the struggle for independence, using Ali’s personal story as a framework around which a range of other participants on both sides of the struggle are introduced. The situation in Algiers at the time is quickly and succinctly summed up in one shot near the beginning showing the sophisticated, Metropolitan, Western-style affluence of the European quarter, which is silently contrasted in a manner that needs no further comment from the filmmakers when the camera pans slightly to the left to reveal the adjacent poverty-stricken slum-warren of cramped alleyways which makes up the Kasbah section of the city – home to over 80,000 disaffected Arab-Muslims.
The desperate guerrilla tactics involved in the reign of bloody street level murder that escalates after Colonel Mathieu exploits a general strike called and enforced by the FLN (in order to force a UN resolution on the conflict) as a pretext for closing businesses and conducting home raids on suspected supporters of the movement (at one point desperate FLN sympathisers spray machinegun fire from the back of a van, aimed at shoppers outside a western-style department store in the European quarter) and the clever means by which the FLN gathers Muslim support in the Kasbah by promising to avenge the bombs of pro-French forces, leads to the call for independence taking on a life of its own and going beyond the organisation itself. The film ends with the destruction of the FLN, but then delivers an epilogue which tells how, two years later, a nationalist movement emerged from nowhere to finally claim the victory the organisation had been denied. The ultimate message of Pontecorvo’s utterly engrossing masterpiece is that the very extremity of the methods the French authorities felt forced to employ in order to suppress the revolution may have won the battle of Algiers for them, but also planted the seeds of radicalisation in the population at large (perhaps symbolised by the youth Omar, who plays an important role in facilitating the FLN leaderships’ original plans) which are eventually to prove impossible for the French nation to ignore.
Pontecorvo’s persistent use throughout of a range of film processing techniques, combined to create the illusion that the movie consists of newsreel footage, leads to it becoming rather hard to judge its overall HD quality, as the film is often supposed to look degraded and grainy. Generally through, the presentation is very pleasing with good levels of increased clarity in the majority of the picture and a clear mono soundtrack in French-Arabic.
The extras consist of an 18 minute interview with director Gillo Pontecorvo on “The Making of the Battle of Algiers” in which he explains how he became involved in the project, how he went about casting the film and his technique for directing crowd scenes and making them look realistic. He explains how his docu-drama aesthetic was resisted by his first cinematographer who consequently had to be replaced by Marcello Gatti, and he discusses the importance of editing in achieving the effect he was aiming for. Pontecorvo also has an amusing story to tell about how Ennio Morricone tricked him into thinking he had psychic powers when he appeared to independently come up with exactly the same piece of music for a certain cue as the director himself. In “The Real Battle of Algiers” (23 minutes) and “Our War For Freedom” (15 minutes) former FLN member and actor in the movie Saadi Yacef, and Zohra Drif Bitat, now a member of the Algerian senate but at the time a law student and one of the women who actually planted the bombs shown in that sequence from the film discussed above, explain the backdrop to the Algerian Independence struggle from their own standpoint, which tends towards justifying the tactics many others might still think constituted an unacceptable form of terrorism. There are shorter video pieces by filmmakers Ken Loach and Paul Greengrass, who talk in terms of the film’s impact on modern directors, and there are also some trailers and several photo galleries, as well as a booklet (unavailable for review) featuring an essay by scholar David Forgacs, Professor at NYU, who explains how and why the film came about and how it was shaped by award winning Italian filmmakers and the ex-FLN producer whose memoir the film is based on.
“The Battle of Algiers” remains a stunning cinematic achievement which makes what many would consider an obscure historical conflict appear as relevant to current world affairs as it was at the time of the film’s release forty-seven years ago. Incredible, searing, naturalistic performances and a gritty, street level style of photography, capturing the cloistered existence of a disenfranchised people on the very streets on which they rebelled less than a decade earlier, sees the film continue to resonate with audiences today. It’s wields a spellbinding power and intensity, rarely matched since by any other filmmaker who has attempted to deal with the subjects of civil war conflict and its consequences, but one doesn’t have to be looking for a lesson in political or military intervention to note the filmmaking precision and genius being exercised up on the screen here – highly recommended.
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