Strangely enough, this season’s most electrifying and urgently topical movie was filmed not last year but nearly four decades ago. A stunningly vivid, endlessly thought-provoking chronicle of the Algerian Muslim revolt against French rule in the 1950s, Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers became a worldwide art-house sensation after its completion in 1965. It returned to the spotlight in late 2003 when it was screened at the Pentagon for U.S. military personnel. Of its subsequent re-release to American theaters, one can only say, “Not a moment too soon.”
Not every legendary 1960s film looks fresh and convincing in retrospect. The Battle of Algiers, if anything, is even more of a cinematic marvel now than it was back then. Pontecorvo, an Italian, emerged from the filmic culture of Neorealism, with its characteristic fusion of documentary-like shooting and political engagement. Using handheld cameras, telephoto lenses and high-speed black-and-white film stock, the director staged rebels gunning down French officers and planting bombs in cafes, and French paratroopers storming though the maze-like streets of Algiers’ Casbah, in a manner so realistic that the movie’s original U.S. distributor felt obliged to issue statements declaring, “Not one foot of newsreel or documentary footage has been used.”
Even today, many viewers might easily assume otherwise. An intensely gripping film, The Battle of Algiers arguably remains the most complex, compelling and authentic depiction of urban anti-colonial warfare ever put on film. That it shows a Muslim uprising against a well-armed and politically determined Western power makes it, of course, a work whose currency has been alarmingly renewed by recent events.
All of this is not, however, to suggest that the film is “unbiased.” Its strong but subtle rhetorical bent no doubt emerged inexorably from its very unusual origins. Not long after Algeria achieved its independence on July 3, 1962, one of the revolt’s military commanders, Saadi Yacef, set up a company to produce a film about the revolution and went to Italy to interview directors. Why an Italian-Algerian co-production rather than an indigenous one? Why an Italian director? Yacef (now an Algerian senator who visited the United States for the film’s 2004 re-release) was evidently cosmopolitan enough to know of Neorealism’s renown. His choices also suggest that his intent was not so much to memorialize the revolution for local audiences as to explain it and assert its legitimacy to viewers the world over, especially in the West. He perhaps did not imagine the film would be a rallying point for Islamic insurgencies for decades to come.
Although Yacef approached Francesco Rosi and Luchino Visconti, the director who accepted his assignment was the lesser known Pontecorvo, who had served as a courier for the Italian Communist Party in World War II and whose work all has a strong political bent. Reportedly, the director and his screenwriter, Franco Solinas, demanded a free hand in deciding how to present the material Yacef gave them. The result was a unique convergence of geopolitical and artistic agendas. Made during the era when the term “Third World” came into vogue, The Battle of Algiers was the first important film that viewed a developing country’s national liberation struggle through the Neorealism-forged lens of idealistic European leftism. Though it reflected a general shift in European (especially French) public opinion, which in the previous decade had shifted against colonialism, the movie also fueled the anti-colonialist fires. When it appeared in European and American theaters, the thoughts in the minds of many critics at the time were not of Algeria but Vietnam.
Much of the film’s success, both as a work of art and an understated polemic, comes from two qualities much noted at the time: its objectivity and its even-handedness. Both are still surprising to anyone who expects a fire-breathing, overtly partisan bit of revolutionary rabble-rousing. “Objectivity” here refers not to the lack of a political viewpoint but to an avoidance of the kind of dominant, overheated subjectivity that characterizes Hollywood movies. There are only a handful of characters in the movie, and we don’t really get close to them or experience the events through their eyes. Rather, the film maintains a rather distanced view of the proceedings, as if looking down from a god’s viewpoint. Thus, instead of witnessing a story centered on certain individuals, we feel like we’re watching the movements of history itself, contortions in which strategic abstractions suddenly gain human weight and unexpected clarity.
There’s an ingenious shrewdness to the filmmakers’ decision to focus on three years in the 17-year struggle. You think these are the years when the revolution turned the corner, or emerged victorious? On the contrary, they represent the very nadir of revolutionary hopes; except for a brief coda, the story chronicles a downward spiral toward utter defeat for the anti-French guerrillas. It begins in 1957 as the French torture an Arab, and then, acting on information he provides, storm the Casbah hideout of Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), the only revolutionary leader still at large. La Pointe is holed up in a flat along with three confederates. The French shout at them to come out or they’ll blow up the whole building.
The scene shifts back to three years earlier, when the FLN, the revolutionary group, makes its first big assault on the French in Algiers. The insurgents also forbid drugs, drink and prostitution among their own people, and murder those who disobey. Seized by the authorities during a street brawl, Ali La Pointe, a laborer, is hauled off to prison, where he witnesses executions and emerges radicalized. Casting his lot with the FLN upon release, he is told to kill a policeman in the street. The gun the group gives him, though, doesn’t fire, and Ali is angry to find that the assignment was a loyalty test devised by the revolutionary leader Jaffar (Saadi Yacef, playing a thinly fictionalized version of himself).
The revolutionary violence and the measures devised to counter it mount in a game of terrible escalation. This is an intimate tragedy, too. The French mostly aren’t soldiers but ordinary folk who love Algeria and whose families in some cases have been there for much of the 130 years France has controlled Algeria. But atrocity breeds atrocity, and tactics reflect the increasing enmity. The French build barricades and checkpoints and force the Arabs to pass through them to reach the European sectors. The revolutionaries have Arab women dress as Europeans, negotiate the checkpoints, then leave bombs that kill carefree Europeans at a restaurant, a teen hangout, an Air France office. And so it goes: French vigilantes respond with their own horrific bombing attack on innocents.
The film’s even-handedness lies in the fact that it doesn’t demonize either side in the conflict, as Hollywood invariably does. Indeed, the French military, especially as personified by the handsome, articulate paratroop leader Col. Mathieu (Jean Martin, playing a character based on real-life Gen. Jacques Massu), come across not as brutes but as seasoned professionals given a singularly onerous task to perform. Though France banned torture in the 18th century, the practice is reinstituted with bureaucratic efficiency, on orders from Paris. Charged with putting the FLN out of business, the soldiers attack the group cell by cell. Mathieu compares it to killing a tapeworm: No amount of lethal action works unless you kill the head. What happens, of course, is that they neutralize the head, yet somehow the revolution itself survives.
Measuring The Battle of Algiers against the history of the Algerian revolution, you have to recognize the drastic reductions and simplifications that all movies about history entail. The film doesn’t suggest the conflict’s country-wide scope, and its depiction of the atrocities on both sides is sparing in the extreme; in reality, this was one of the most extravagantly brutal of all colonial wars. There’s also no indication of the way the struggle divided France almost to the point of civil war (the subject really needs an epic documentary like The Sorrow and the Pity). Nor do we leave the theater apprised of the fact that Algeria’s independence only led to further tragedy, including a bloody internal conflict that claimed an estimated 150,000 lives in the 1990s.
Banned in France for a time after its release, Pontecorvo’s film was denounced as pro-Arab propaganda in some quarters. Then and now, those who defend European imperialism could wonder if Algeria’s Arabs were not better off when extended the benefits of French citizenship and civilization. That question and others like it, fair topics for debate, are questions no movie can answer. What The Battle of Algiers can do, and does, on the other hand, is worth noting: While evoking the look, feel and emotions of the events it chronicles, it also surveys history’s movements in a way that posits a sense of their meaning. As Harold Clurman put it when reviewing the film in The Nation in 1967, the movie tells us that “ultimately no people will allow itself to be ruled by alien force.”
Strange, how difficult that lesson is to learn. But this is (again) a case where art has an advantage over other forms of public discourse, including movie reviews. Surely, few people can sit through The Battle of Algiers now and not think repeatedly of the Israeli-Palestinian nightmare. Yet according to a publicist, not a single one of the reviews the film got when it opened in New York in January mentioned the parallels to Israel. Why not? I asked a critic who spoke to me of those very parallels why he hadn’t written about them. He replied, “I would have lost my job.”
That’s just one indication of how muzzled the American media is when it comes to what has been called “the last colonial war,” in which the U.S.-supported brutalization of an Arab population is rapidly alienating America–the source of the world’s first great anti-colonial revolt, ironically–from every nation in the world but one. In Israel as in Iraq, the attempt to make history’s clockwork run backwards is laying the groundwork for disasters that may yet surpass the debacle France suffered in Algeria.