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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Perhaps no other cinematic depiction of revolt against colonial rule is so
detailed, vivid, and specific as the 1965 Battle of Algiers (La battaglia
Algeri, just reissued in a new print and having limited distribution in
US). It's a vivid and very specific recreation of the insurrection against
the French in Algiers in the late Fifties that shows how the French
systematically eradicated that insurrection. It's also a story repeated
variations in dozens of parts of the globe now, as then. But as I'm not
first to note, it's neither a partisan tract nor a user manual. It was
therefore foolish of the Pentagon to watch it recently as if tips on how
control Iraqi `resistance'/'terrorism' were to be found in it, and it has
been equally foolish of the Black Panthers or other revolutionaries to
it seeking tactical information for their struggles. Those tactics did not
succeed; but neither did the effort to quell the independence movement:
French won the battle but lost the war. A process that might have
peacefully in a matter of months, takes years to happen. The film
the sad foolishness of solving conflicts with violence, the maximum loss
suffering on both sides and the protraction of the inevitable outcome.
The insurrection The Battle of Algiers describes was effectively quelled through the leadership of the bold, methodical French Colonel Mathieu, who as we see succeeds in eliminating the organizational structure of the resistance, `triangle' by `triangle', using torture to ferret out names and locations of the autonomous `terrorists'/'partisans,' then killing the `head' of the `worm' their structure represents so it can't `regenerate.' Once this happens, after a merciless French campaign following a general strike, the sympathizers in the majority Algerian population are totally demoralized; but two years later a vigorous national independence movement `suddenly,' `spontaneously,' springs forth, and not long afterward France has to grant Algerian independence. It's at this point, rather than at the moment of Mathieu's momentary triumph, that the film ends.
Gillo Pontecorvo undertook his masterpiece after prodding from the resistance leader, Saadi Yacef, but he made a film equally sympathetic toward and critical of both sides. We see as much of the French dissection of the situation and repression of it (by the police chief, then Colonel Mathieu) as we see of the `terrorists'/'partisans' planning and execution of their actions. We see Colonel Mathieu as an appealing macho hero with moments of noble fair play, a shades-wearing, cigarette puffing veteran who moves around with clarity, honesty, and panache; he himself has a `partisan' background. The `terrorist'/'rebel' leaders are serious, intensely committed men of various types, from the sophisticated intellectual to the young firebrand. There are no `heroes' here; or, alternately, if you like, they're all `heroes.'
Mathieu appears before the press beside the captured `rebel'/'terrorist' leader - an unusual move in itself - and expresses his respect for the man's courage and conviction. The `rebel' leader in this scene is eloquent in defending `terrorist'/'rebellion' methods such as the use of baskets filled with explosives in public places. `Give us your bombs and we'll give you our baskets.' Mathieu for his part effectively explains to the journalists the necessity of torture to short circuit the `rebellion'/'terrorism'. After this explanation, the film, typically systematic at this point, begins showing a series of tortures of Algerians being carried out.
The first image we see in the film is the shattered face and body of the small, tortured Algerian man who's broken down and revealed where Ali `La Pointe,' the firebrand, the last remaining leader, is hiding. Then we see the `terrorist'/'terrorist' leader Ali and his closest supporters trapped like deer in their hideaway, their faces soft and beautiful. The splendid black and white photography works like William Klein's Fifties and Sixties images (he's one of the key visual commentators of that period stylistically) to powerfully capture the edgy soulfulness of the North African people and their gritty Casbah milieu. Much of the film's power comes from the way Pontecorvo was able to work, through Saadi Yacef, directly in the Casbah among the real people - as Fernando Meirelles worked in the favelas of Brazil recently with local boys to forge the astonishing City of God.
The voices, which are dubbed, as was the fixed Italian filmmaking style, work somewhat less effectively because of obvious disconnects between mouth and sound at times, but the French is so analytical and the Algerians' Arabic so exotic-sounding (even to a student of Arabic) that they work, and the insistent, exciting music composed by Pontecorvo himself in collaboration with Ennio Morricone is a powerful element in the film's relentless forward movement.
The fast rhythms of the editing are balanced by the stunning authenticity of the hundreds of Algerian extras who swarm across the screen: it's in the crowd scenes that The Battle of Algiers really sings. There are many superb sequences of street fighting, of people massing at checkpoints, of the French victims innocently assembled in public places; and like an exhilarating coda there is the scene of joyous victory as Algerians celebrate their independence in the last blurry moments. This is a film (again, like City of God) of almost intoxicating -- and nauseating -- violence, complexity, and fervor. Pontecorvo's accomplishment, though, is the way through showing the leaders analyzing and debating the action he freezes any impulse toward partisanship in its tracks. The evenhandedness of the coverage works a Brechtian `Alienation Effect' so you don't get caught up in rooting for one side or the other.
The sequence of three pretty Algerian women carrying out an operation is a particularly memorable one -- but only one among many. First they take off their burqas and cut their hair and doll themselves up French style and then they get past the checkpoint into the French quarter to leave handbags full of explosives in a bar, a dance club, and an airport lounge. Again close-ups of faces in the bar and the jive dancers with jaunty jabbing elbows in the club show a brilliant use of image and classic editing: first the innocent, vulnerable faces, then the explosions. Here our sympathies for the French victims are fully awakened. Another sequence of Algerians removing bodies from a building has all the power and sadness of Christ's Passion.
There's no point where as in a conventional thriller we feel excitement and sympathy for the perpetrator, because we see the cruelty of the perpetrator and the humanity of the victim every time. The Battle of Algiers is a final triumphant use of Italian cinematic neorealismo. The killing is observed neutrally, but with sadness, as part of a stupid game caused by ignorance and played out compulsively when a political settlement would have been infinitely better - a stupid game observed with astonishing zest.
Revived thirty-five years later in a new 35-mm. print, its grainy beauty pristinely vivid, The Battle of Algiers remains a superbly made machine that plays out the addictive game of `terrorism,' repression, torture, revolt, and full-fledged insurrection as effectively now as when it was first issued. Like any classic, it's of its time and of all time. There's a lesson here, but it's not for partisans or colonialists: it's for all people.
"Battle of Algiers" is simply one of the greatest films every made. If film
making can be about truth as well as fantasy, then a movie that includes a
title card telling viewers that there is not one foot of documentary or
newsreel footage in it must deserve viewing.
"Battle of Algiers" contains scenes that seem so real, you suspect that they couldn't have been staged. When three Algerian women come down from the Casbah to plant bombs in the French quarter of the city, you can almost cut the tension with a knife. When the bombs go off, you think they must have been real bombs. And when you see the devastation they leave in their wake, you cannot fail to be moved. The massive rebellion in the streets at the end of the film also seems so real, you sit wondering how many extras must have been injured filming those scenes.
"Battle of Algiers" combines brilliant photography, crisp direction, an intriguing plot and some very fine acting. Throw in a terrific music score, splendid editing, impressive special effects and the best example ever of docudrama style production and you have a masterpiece of film making.
But film making is not nearly as important as human life and no film in general release today says more about America's current involvement in the middle east and many other parts of the world than this picture about the French in Algeria, made more than three decades ago.
Every American should view this film, then think about our current occupation of Iraq.
An historian writing about the Algerian war against the French colonial authorities entitled his book "A Savage War of Peace". "The Battle of Algiers" provides many answers to that enigmatic title. It does not attempt to show us the entire war but centers on the city of Algiers. Even though you are told at the beginning that no documentary footage is used it is at times hard to believe as many of the images you see have a stark and often unsettling reality to them. Considering that this was a co production between Algeria and Italy the film is remarkable in that it does not turn itself a political tirade by taking sides. Instead the camera is a sort of neutral observer allowing us to witness events that spiraled from individual demonstrations to a full scale war of savage intensity. French officers who fought the Nazis a few years before degenerated into the mode of their former enemy while Algerians had no problems exploding bombs that would kill their own people. The camera shows no heros or villains but humanity in its darkest forms. This is a powerful film with superb direction and cinematography. It truly is one of a kind and once seen will never be forgotten.
In 1962 after more than 130 years of French colonial rule, Algeria became
independent. Gillo Pontecorvo's `Algiers' shows the decade leading to that
liberation in a powerful story about Muslims asserting their rights through
violence, hiding, and plotting in the Kasbah, a demiworld of narrow,
winding, seemingly endless alleys that are the only protection the rebels
have from the eyes of the French. The re-release of the 1965 black and
white film is a convincing story of a people who do not want to be occupied
and will give their lives so their families can one day be
The story centers on a couple of Muslim leaders, the charismatic Col. of the French forces, and the bombings and shootouts that at one point averaged just over 4 per day. The film's sympathy is for the Muslims, but the Colonel has moments of reflection that could be sympathetic, especially with the revelation that he was a member of the resistance in WWII and may have suffered in a concentration camp. The director shows the influence of Italian neo-realists like Roberto Rossellini (`Paisan') by shooting in documentary style on location, using non-actors (except for the Colonel), and generally avoiding an agitprop angle.
But the film's sympathy in the end belongs to the occupied people. When 3 rebel women change appearance to look French, infiltrate, and plant bombs, the irony obvious to American audiences in their current struggle is a tribute to the strength of the narration and characterization and the universal dislike of occupation and subjugation.
The torture of the Muslim prisoners is the most poignant relevance to the recent scandal in Iraq. The Colonel's justification for the practice to gain life-saving information is classic `ends-justify-the-means' logic still being used by great nations. In fact, the Pentagon reportedly had seen this film during the first days of the second Iraq War; some say they learned nothing from the film, which is an unforgettable study of occupation and defeat.
I ask myself why we never see these kind of movies on TV, instead of
again and again the same old lethal weapons, jurassic parks, and other
This is real cinema, this is why it is considered a form of
With the metaphysical crudeness of black and white, the dramatical facts of the Algerian rebellion against the French are accounted. The movie has the realistic appearance of a chronicle. And there are tons of intellectual honesty, too. I mean that there are no white hats VS black hats. You can see terrorists troubled as they are about to leave a bomb in a cafe. Policemen who struggle to save an arabian child from being killed by outraged crowd. Most of all, I like the frank words of Colonel Mathieu about the "bad methods" he's using during interrogations... Watch the movie and you will know.
I wish I could locate a videocassette of this film--subtitled, not dubbed. The first time I saw it, I was a little put off by what I thought was a pompous disclaimer that "not one foot" of documentary footage had been used. But, in light of the finished product, it's a remarkable statement. If a film has better captured the harsh and ugly realities that are an inevitable part of a true revolutionary movement, I never saw it. It is greatly to its credit that one never gets a sense of "good guys vs. bad guys" here--only of people trapped in a truly impossible set of circumstances, from which no escape is possible without confrontation and bloodshed. It was depressing to see this movie in Berkeley in the early 70s, and hear the audience cheer the "heroic" Algerian revolutionaries while booing the "villainous" French, in view of the great pains that had been taken to present a balanced viewpoint. This film is thrilling, heartbreaking, thought-provoking, and beautiful--sometimes by turns and sometimes all at once. If you haven't seen it and it show up anywhere in the vicinityh, drop everything and go--and pray that it's subtitled and not dubbed. (There are dubbed prints and, as is usually the case, dubbing pretty nearly wrecks it.) This is a masterpiece.
Capturing a historic incident/moment with extraordinary accuracy makes a film truly beautiful, painful, and masterful. With the tradition of Italian Neo Realism and French New Wave - i.e. shooting in location and casting nonprofessional actors, The Battle of Algiers harshly seals the ugly realities of both French Legion and Algerian Guerillas - i.e. indiscriminate bombs, tortures, and scapegoats. Ennio Morricone composed one of his early successful scores.
Just when I thought I was starting to hate every movie in sight, I had the
amazing priveledge to watch "the Battle Of Algiers" which is this amazing
account of the oppression of the Algierian people by the French in the
When the movie starts, we see 4 people hiding from the French Army. Then all of a sudden, this amazingly haunting music starts, and we're told the story in flashback of how the Algierian people tried to revolt against the French Soldiers.
From what I understand, the movie uses no documentary footage, which is amazing as some of the scenes in the movie must have taken a great deal of effort to produce., There are some pretty amazing crowd scenes and the explosion scenes are just breathtaking.
Also, I guess some of the actual revolutionaries are in the film as well. They are pretty hard to point out as all of the acting here is amazing, very realistic.
So, looking for a war movie? Dammit, don't go for Private Ryan, go to Algiers.
If one has not seen this film, one cannot begin to imagine Pontecorvo's
extraordinary achievement. The acting is so natural and convincing that
many viewers and even some critics assumed that the movie was a
documentary. Only a master director could have taken this raw acting
material and gotten such performances out of it. And despite his
leftist viewpoint, Pontecorvo neither ridicules or demonizes the
French, as does Michael Moore the Americans in his recent putative
documentaries Bowling at Columbine and Farenheit 9-11 - though I do a
disservice to Pontecorvo to compare his work to that of Moore.
See this movie now that it has been released on DVD in the United States and learn from the history it so brilliantly conveys.
Just a few words for 'La battaglia di Algeri'. Watch it! It's astonishing, fast, dramatic, crude, real, touching, historically accurate. To everybody who wants to know more about Algerian civil war: buy it, find it..!
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