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April 3, 2007 |

By Phillip Stephens | Guides | April 3, 2007 |

“My subject is the sadness and laceration that the birth of a nation means in our lifetime.”

— Gillo Pontecorvo

I was sad that, last October, we here at Pajiba didn’t give more attention to the passing of Gillo Pontecorvo, the renowned Italian director who crafted, according to Edward Said, the “two greatest political films ever made.” I had initially planned on writing my second Guide on one or more of Pontecorvo’s films, but opted for that self-indulgent look at cartoons instead. Now that I’m back at the helm, however, I’ve no further excuses. In any case, it’s been far too long for any of us to have gone without taking a look at Pontecorvo’s work and, specifically, his quintessential political thriller — The Battle of Algiers.

Simply put, and without much hyperbole, The Battle of Algiers is a masterpiece of filmmaking that was unlike any other film of its time. Though Pontecorvo’s vision found echoes in the works of Costa-Gavras and Fassbinder, no one until Paul Greengrass has been able to combine history, drama, and realism to such an extent and still make all three so commanding.

Filmed in 1965, when the post-war world was still roiling in the struggles against colonialism, The Battle of Algiers let Pontecorvo, a fervent anti-fascist and revolutionary, focus his lens on one of the most dramatic independence movements — the war of the National Liberation Front (FLN) in Algeria against French rule, 1954-1962.

The film specifically tracks the experience of Ali la Pointe (Brahim Hagiag), who corresponds in name to a real-life figure. La Pointe is a troubled man who, dejected over the racist political system of the ruling French colonials (pied-noirs), is imprisoned and politically radicalized. He then joins the mounting insurgency movement of the FLN, led by El-hadi Jafar, the fictional counterpart of real revolutionary Saadi Yacef, who also plays the character. The two build support until they have the lives and resources to begin waging an active rebellion against the French polity; their stories become an enthralling manual on the creation of urban-guerilla warfare cells (No surprise, then, that the film itself became a DIY reference for both the IRA and Black Panther movements).

The FLN begin the war of independence in short, brutal steps, through bombings, assassinations, and sporadic gunfights that escalate until the French send their paratroopers to suppress the revolt. The French are led by the gaunt, enigmatic Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin), a veteran whose brutality and dispassion both match and mock the Algerians. Mathieu’s counter-insurgency is as brutal as the revolutionaries’ actions, and his tactical effectiveness allows him to isolate and neutralize the leaders of the FLN, seemingly achieving a French victory.

Pontecorvo shot on location in the Casbah of Algiers with the consent of the revolutionary government and used mostly non-actors in the Algerian roles, allowing for an unprecedented degree of realism and the documentary trappings that give the film added legitimacy; Pontecorvo’s high-contrast black-and-white and claustrophobic setting give it the speed of a thriller. The events in Battle, from the shootings to the marching and rioting, are so real in their depictions that most audiences at the time assumed Pontecorvo cut a few dramatic recreations in with actual news or documentary footage. He didn’t. Pontecorvo’s film techniques finally made good the promise of the French New Wave, wherein the camera was meant to eavesdrop on history as it actually happened, achieving such verisimilitude as to be indistinct from reality.

But beyond his technical achievements, what really takes center stage in the film is Pontecorvo’s humane objectivity. The Algerians are accurately depicted as baldly and pitilessly using acts of terrorism to fight against a cruel, unjust system that rules over them. The French, on the contrary, are all the more ruthless for their dispassion. Pontecorvo depicts Algerians willing to kill indiscriminately to achieve their goals, while the French will fight or do nothing at all if it secures tactical advantage. The revolutionaries are fighting an ideological war of beliefs; the colonialists fight a methodical war of results.

Pontecorvo presents each fighter as a product of his own time and culture; neither is morally superior. But even so, Pontecorvo is by no means neutral. Though the efficiency and skill of Mathieu’s paratroopers wins the battle, the film’s coda shows it to be a foregone conclusion: Algerian independence was an undeniable moment of history and civilization that could not be countered, and Pontecorvo sees this victory as a cruel necessity. He told the New York Times in 1969:

“So many critics see The Battle of Algiers as propaganda. But in the scenes of death, the same religious music accompanies both the French and Arab bombings. I am on the side of the Arabs, but I feel compassion for the French even if historically they were at fault. I do not say the French were bad, only that they were wrong.

When The Battle of Algiers was released in the late 1960s, the artistic world was in a fervor of anticolonialist sentiment owing to the Vietnam War. Given this and his own leftist leanings, Pontecorvo’s act of evenhandedness, his willingness to accurately portray anti-revolutionaries as both cruel and humane was an act of artistic courage. The depictions in the film came to be more than a specific look at historical events; it became an allegory for the entire postcolonial experience of Western nations in the Third World.

Pontecorvo’s prescience has become even more remarkable in recent years: In August of 2003 the U.S. Directorate for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict screened The Battle of Algiers at the Pentagon in an attempt to illustrate the possible problems facing them after the invasion of Iraq. How ironic that a film with bloody, indigenous independence as its motif was used as an afterthought in the minds of an invading Western administration! It was an event that confirmed Pontecorvo’s film as beautifully accurate representation of postcolonial conflict; it was also, sadly, an indication that its real meaning has yet to be learned.

Phillip Stephens is the lead critic for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR.

Guides | April 3, 2007 |

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