The Battle of Algiers

(Gillo Pontecorvo, Italy, 1965)


Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic of politically engaged cinema arrives like a Molotov cocktail in the midst of today’s bland mainstream and arthouse circuits.

This account of France’s tragic colonial occupation of Algiers in the 1950s and ’60s – much of it based on producer Saadi Yacef’s first-hand experience in the FLN (National Liberation Front) – is being hailed all over again for its "analysis of terror" and terrorism.

But whose terrorism, exactly? That of the oppressed Algerians who, full of rage and ideological conviction, drive down the main street machine-gunning random French citizens and stealthily placing bombs in cafes and jukebox dance halls? Or that of the French government, sadistically torturing suspects and making everyday life impossible for the local citizens?

There is no mystery as to where the sympathies of Pontecorvo and his talented writer Franco Solinas lie in the depiction of this battle. All the same, the film’s mosaic structure manages to detail both the secret, underground existence of the liberation fighters and the ingenious counter-tactics of the police army led by Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin).

Pontecorvo had a genuinely fertile vision of the possibilities of political cinema. He was part of a rich period in Italian cinema that blended popular forms with militant content – while resisting the hard-line revolutionary filmmaking adopted by Jean-Luc Godard and others. (Cahiers du cinéma is, curiously, in 2004 railing against the film – still guided by the star of Jacques Rivette’s ringing denunciation of Pontecorvo’s Kapo [1959].)

Today, the kinship of The Battle of Algiers with the more politically-minded Italian Westerns is obvious. Pontecorvo shares both an editor (Mario Serandrei) and a composer (Ennio Morricone) with Sergio Leone, and his work has some of the same, rousing energy as films like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966).

At the same time, the realism of The Battle of Algiers (although it is far from historic Italian neo-realism, something many ill-informed contemporary reviewers do not grasp) is intricate and authentic. Few films convey in such depth the urban experience of close-knit living stirred within a pressure-cooker of social tensions. Pontecorvo’s aim was to evoke a "collective hero" and, although he does focus when necessary on a handful of charismatic FLN leaders, his portrait of a vibrant metropolis is quite remarkable.

As strange as it may sound, there is an aura of nostalgia that now swathes this film. For all its lucidity, it cannot help but perpetuate the leftist romance prevalent in the ’60s about the nobility of armed insurrection, and its consequent demonising of the "fascist" police.

But Pontecorvo and Solinas are still able to give an indelible speech to Mathieu, who points out that some of his soldiers fought in the French Resistance, and others suffered in the concentration camps. Even fascism, it seems, is a complex business.

© Adrian Martin June 2004

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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