The Battle of Algiers (15.)
Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo. 1965
Starring Brahim Haggiag, Jean Martin, Saadi Yacef, Samia Kerbash, Fusia El Kader. Black and white. 121 mins.
Pontecorvo's urgent recreation of recent events is a ramshackle classic. The 1965 film often has the quality of watching children playing a game of war on a just vacated battlefield. The decade before, in a city divided between the affluent European sector on the seafront and the densely populated Casbah that sprawled across the hills behind, the Algerians began to organise to overthrow the colonial yoke of the French. Independence was finally gained in 1962 and almost straight after the leaders of the FLN guerilla group started to work on making a film of the struggle. Italian director Pontecorvo eventually took on the task, getting a cast of non-actors to re-enact events on or around the places where they had occurred.
It's real, but not real. It has a butter-wouldn't-melt documentary authenticity to it but beneath that scatty veneer the film is tightly controlled; the mood and the audience response are firmly marshalled by some taut editing and a rousing score composed by the director and Ennio Morricone. Most of the characters are composites, though FLN leader Saadi Yacef appears more or less as himself. It sometimes seems amateurish, the guns not even pointing in the direction of the people that are falling dead, but that actually works rather well with the film's newsreel look, makes it seem more believable. If it was any slicker you wouldn't buy into it. It hurtles through events, continually jumping months ahead and leaving viewers to work out what might have happened in between.
The movie concentrates on events in the city of Algiers between 1954 and '57 as the FLN plot liberation from their French. Though its production was initiated by members of the FLN the film is celebrated for its remarkably even-handed. It is implicitly in favour of the rebels but it doesn't shy away from the obscenity of exploding a bomb in a café full of innocent people. The French soldiers are shown using torture on captives and yet their leader Colonel Mathieu (memorably played by the film's only professional actor Martin) is rather sympathetically drawn. He may operate at the rough end of "hard but fair," yet there's a disarming honesty, even integrity, about him.
When he gets them to not look straight into the camera, Pontecorvo draws some excellent performances from his amateur cast. Whatever they teach you at RADA, when it comes to the big screen if your face fits then you are two-thirds of the way there really. Brahim Haggiag has a fantastic face that is just ideal for the role of Ali La Pointe, the petty criminal turned revolutionary. It is though Jean Martin, tall and slightly bogeyed, like a matinee idol Stephen Merchant, that you remember. His face dominates the cover, and he is perhaps one of cinema's most intriguing bad guys.
The film is now over half a decade old and during that time its perspective has changed considerably. On its release, it must've been an early example of Radical Chic. Back in those days, Western colonialism seemed like the worse thing that humanity could spring on the world: in the 21st Century Islamic terrorists fighting to overturn Western imperialists doesn’t have the same trendy allure. Religion isn't presented as a primary force in the rebellion and plenty of women move around without headscarves but the scene where an old drunk man is attacked by a group of small children after the FLN announce that they are cracking down on drugs, drink and prostitution in the Casbah is chilling.
Famously the Pentagon organised a screening of the film in September 2003 shortly after the discovery that the streets of Baghdad were not lined with grateful Iraqis. I don't know which is more dispiriting: the idea that US leadership are looking for ideas from films or that they didn't think to watch it before the invasion. Either way, they were looking in the wrong place: The Battle of Algiers is not about the winning, it's about the cost of taking part.
Mostly interviews. One with director Pontecorvo, producer and star Saadi Yacef, FLNfighter Zohra Drif Bitat and a couple of appreciations from Paul Greengrass and Ken Loach. There's also a feature on the restoration of the print and a booklet by Alan O’Leary.