Fusia El Kader and Jean Martin in La battaglia di Algeri (1966)

BATTLE OF ALGIERS, THE (Battaglia di Algeri, La)

(director/writer: Gillo Pontecorvo; screenwriter: Franco Solinas/from the book by Yacef Saadi; cinematographer: Marcello Gatti; editors: Mario Morra/Mario Serandrei; music: Ennio Morricone/Gillo Pontecorvo; cast: Brahim Haggiag (Ali La Pointe), Jean Martin (Col. Mathieu), Yacef Saadi (Jaffar), Samia Kerbash (One of the girls), Ugo Paletti (Captain), Fusia El Kader (Halima); Runtime: 123; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Antonio Musu/Yacef Saadi ; The Criterion Collection/Janus; 1965-Algeria/Italy-in French and Arabic with English subtitles))

“The same power it had 40 years ago is still evident.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Gillo Pontecorvo has created a politically motivated landmark film about the Algerian struggle for independence from France. It won the Golden Lion honors at the 1966 Venice Film Festival. The stirring docudrama first released in 1965 was subsidized by the Algerian government, and has just been re-released to theaters with a future DVD in the works. The same power it had 40 years ago is still evident, in fact with the recent Iraqi war and the current post-war insurrection it is perhaps more relevant than before. It was screened for Pentagon personnel in August 2003, though the terrorists of Algiers were not suicidal or religiously motivated–just determined to succeed no matter the cost.

It lucidly depicts the guerrilla tactics of the Algerian struggle for independence from France from 1954-57 after being under colonial rule for over a period of 130 years, and ends in 1962 when Algeria gained its independence. The only professional actor in the cast is Jean Martin, who marvelously plays Colonel Mathieu. He’s a wily, tough, chain-smoking head of the paratroopers, who systematically puts down the insurrection with as much force as necessary. Most of the other actors were nonprofessional Algerians, which gave the film the hard-edge look of reality.

Although the left-wing Pontecorvo’s sympathies are clearly with the terrorists of the National Liberation Front (FLN), he nevertheless presents a balanced film. He does not unnecessarily demean the French soldiers and civilians, or depict them just as caricatures of villains, but places them in different poses as reacting to the loss of innocent lives after a series of police assassinations and public bombings in the streets and cafes. Though he does not flinch from showing that the French military used torture when questioning suspects, one of the reasons the film was banned in France when released. But he also does not glamorize the Algerians, as he shows the terrorists ruthlessly using women to carry through the Casbah checkpoints baskets with weapons and explosives used by the men to indiscriminately kill children and women.

The film is passionate and convincingly real in its storytelling, as its grainy black-and-white photography and lack of much dialogue gives it the look of a newsreel as it guides us through the dark secret passages of the Muslim quarters in the Casbah.

The film opens in 1957, as a tortured Arab prisoner informs against Ali la Pointe (Haggiag), the last surviving member of the FLN. The soldiers have Ali and his family trapped behind a fake wall in his Casbah apartment hiding place. The film then flashes forward to 1954 and the beginning stages of the FLN movement. After Ali’s arrest and imprisonment over a three-card Monte scam, the illiterate boxer is recruited by the polished activist FLN leader named Jaffar (Yacef Saadi). Pontecorvo was helped considerably in understanding how the terrorist cell operation worked by his reading of a book about the insurrection by Yacef Saadi, the same actor playing a rebel character based on his real life and also the film’s coproducer. Saadi was the FLN chief serving time in a French prison, as he was the only leader who surrendered in order to survive when the paratroopers put down the rebellion in 1957.

When the terrorist cells were finally destroyed by the paratroopers in 1957 all is quiet until the revolution is sparked again in 1960. Though what it tells us about the terrorists’ determination to achieve their aims even if they lose the battle might not be pleasing to most, the film nevertheless leaves us with many serious questions to ponder in our current War on Terrorism. Its story moves into real-life territory that very few films have ever reached, and it therefore can be appreciated all the more for how different it was from a glossy Hollywood revolutionary film.

Though it was reportedly used as a terrorist instructional film in the late 1960s by radical organizations such as the Black Panthers, it still was the prototype for all mainstream political films of the 1970s. Its unnerving political struggle between an underprivileged people and a powerful country has the urgency to reach a wide audience with its frightening and stark images and the explosive cinematic dazzle that should please even the seen-it-all cinephiles. The filmmaking skills involved in recreating the insurrection in such fine detail is something to marvel at. It just might be the best film ever made about revolutionary activities, or at least the one that impressed me the most.