This week’s topic builds upon another remarkable film that since its release in 1966 produced considerable political controversy, dividing critical opinion.
The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo’s historical account of the Algerian struggle for independence against French colonial power.
The film was awarded a Leone d’Oro at the 1966 Venice Film Festival and was nominated for three Academy awards including Best Screenplay (Gillo Pontecorvo and Franco Solinas) and Best Director (Gillo Pontecorvo) and Best Foreign Language Film. Today it appears on numerous lists of the best foreign movies of all times and it has influenced multiple directors including: Spike Lee, Ken Loach, Mira Nair, Steven Soderbergh, Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino.
In this highly political feature, the Italian director exposes the ambiguous legacy of imperialism in Western efforts to combat indigenous resistance and terrorism. But also more generally it is a thought-provoking philosophical reflection on violence, and on the relationship between ends and means.
Filmed on location in the marketplaces and narrow streets of the Casbah, employing non-professional actors, the film is considered an example of provocative, documentary-style political filmmaking.
The aesthetics of the film were deliberately crafted to resemble a newsreel of the time; shot in 16mm with grainy black and white photography and the pioneering use of hand-held cameras in the crowd scenes.
Influenced by Rossellini’s Neorealism, Pontecorvo sought to create a new kind of hybrid realism that would confer to the story what he called “the tone of truth”. The haunting music composed by Pontecorvo himself in collaboration with Ennio Morricone is a powerful element in the film’s inexorable forward movement.
The effect was so convincing that in the American version appeared the disclaimer “no newsreel footage was actually used in the production of the picture”.
Its portrayal of guerrilla warfare as well as the French counterinsurgency tactics, were so accurate and detailed in depicting the police shootings, the terrorist bombings and torture methods, that the film was adapted into a training manual for the Black Panthers , the Irish Republican Army and in 2003 was even screened at the Pentagon for its relevance in the American military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Because of its extreme realism and because the events narrated were still fresh in the audience’s memory, the film was accused of inspiring political violence and banned in France for five years. Many felt it was too sympathetic to the Algerian view, and that was a reasonable point, since the film was subsidized by the Algerian government and was originally intended as propaganda for the cause of anti-colonialism.
The original idea for the film was based on the memoirs of Saadi Yacef, one of the leaders of the National Liberation Front (FLN). When Pontecorvo, was asked to direct the film, he found the script outrageously propagandistic and accepted the offer only on the terms he and his co-writer Solinas could change the story. They rewrote everything from scratch and managed to find some middle ground. Despite all the criticisms, the film was eventually praised for its neutral perspective and for its refusal to romanticize war or revolution.
The story begins in 1957 at the end of a torture sequence, when an Algerian victim has been broken down and reveals to the French soldiers the hiding place of Ali la Pointe, the last FLN leader to remain at large. At this point, the story reverts back to three years earlier in 1954 when Ali, then only a petty thief, joins the FLN after witnessing an execution in prison. Ali is the closest thing to a main character, a real-life Algerian guerrilla leader portrayed by a non-actor. However, by no means is the story “about” him.
The film traces the rebels’ struggle and the increasingly extreme measures taken by the French government to suppress what soon becomes a nationwide revolt.
When violence escalates on both sides, the French government sends paratroopers to Algiers under the command of Colonel Mathieu, played by Jean Martin, the film’s only professional actor. He embodies the archetype of military efficiency. This man, a war hero in the Resistance against the Nazis, is calm, analytical, strategic in his thinking, and considers the FLN to be the enemy, not an evil force. He respects his opponents but believes ruthless methods are indispensable. For him there is nothing personal about torture, it is just part of the job: “We are soldiers and our only duty is to win”.
In one of the most significant lines in the film, Colonel Mathieu, lucidly exposes the ugly truth to reporters during a press conference:
Colonel Mathieu – “The problem is, the FNL wants to throw us out of Algeria and we want to stay… It’s my turn to ask a question. Is France to remain in Algeria? –
If your answer is still yes, you must accept all the necessary consequences”.
This question of whether the ends justify the means will be a recurring theme along the entire film.
Pontecorvo, who was a member of the Italian Communist Party, obviously felt the French had gone too far by adopting policies of torture, brutal intimidation and killings, however he never sentimentalizes the Algerian cause or reduces the French to caricatures. He sought to make The Battle of Algiers within a “dictatorship of truth”.
He doesn’t shy away from depicting the atrocities committed by the Algerian nationalists and he is clear that they must also face their own moral reckoning.
The most powerful scene in the movie comes when three FLN women drop their veils and take on a Western look in order to infiltrate the European Quarter and plant explosives in two cafés and an Air France ticket office. Through their eyes we look at the innocents about to be slaughtered; teenagers dancing, men sipping drinks and chatting, a toddler licking an ice cream cone. The women take no pleasure in their mission and shoulder full responsibility for its appalling consequences.
Again do the ends justify the means? How far can you go to achieve your political goals?
When the bomb explodes, we see bloody bodies taken out in the streets. Pontecorvo always lingers on the aftermath of each attack, emphasising that victims are victims whether Arab or French. This equality of deaths is powerfully underlined by Ennio Morricone’s dramatic score that plays as the corpses are plucked from the debris both in the Casbah and the City.
When the FLN calls a week of general strike to mobilize the Algerian population and influence the international community during a United Nations debate, Ben M’Hidi, the leader of the nationalist movement, explains to young Ali the rationale behind this strike:
Ben M’Hidi: “Acts of violence don’t win wars. Neither wars nor revolutions. Terrorism is useful as a start. But then, the people themselves must act”.
After the flashback we jump back to the opening scene. Ali, now the last member of the FLN, is hiding inside a fake wall of his apartment with several others. A tense showdown ensues, the paratroopers have already set the explosives around the building and ask them one last time to surrender. But they refuse to give up and accept the consequences of their actions.
Two years later 1960: the final scene shows thousands of Algerians protesting in the street holding the national flags, the soldiers start shooting into the crowd. The film ends with a voice over announcing that on July 2, 1962 the new nation of Algeria was born.
With this symbolic closing scene the director suggests that French counterinsurgency methods such as torture may have won the Battle of Algiers but eventually lost the war.
The strength of this powerful and brutally honest film lies in its unbiased and vivid account of history. War is stripped away of all the emotional aspects and violence condemned no matter what. The camera shows no winners or losers, no heroes or villains, only humanity in its darkest forms.
Still relevant today as it was fifty years ago, the Battle of Algiers is a must see for anyone who loves real cinema.