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'Battle of Algiers': A Revolution in Film

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 9, 2004; Page C04

Is there anything left to say about "The Battle of Algiers"? ("Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar?" So said a flier announcing a screening of the movie at the Pentagon last summer.)

The 1965 film, which is being re-released this year in a spanking new print, is as urgent, as intense, as prescient, as wise as it was the day it first hit theaters. Directed by the Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo, it is what would today be called a mock-documentary, but there is nothing mock about it: "The Battle of Algiers," which fictionally re-creates the years preceding the 1962 Algerian revolution, is nothing if not chillingly authentic.


The film's protest scenes are chillingly authentic. (Photo British Film Institute/rialto Pictures)

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Commissioned by the revolutionary government, made by a member of Italy's Communist Party, cast almost entirely with nonprofessional actors (many of whom had fought the actual battles represented onscreen) and filmed in the serpentine alleys, staircases and archways of Algiers's Muslim Casbah, "The Battle of Algiers" was designed as a propaganda device, one that would convey the revolution's ideals with the immediacy and drive of a cinéma vérité documentary. Taking a page from the Italian neo-realists of the 1940s and from the French New Wave of the 1960s, Pontecorvo used newsreel film stock, telephoto lenses and a percussive, hard-driving musical score (co-written with Ennio Morricone) to create a swiftly moving political thriller that pulsed with the energy and violence of the street.

But if "The Battle of Algiers" lived up to its documentary roots, it didn't quite turn out to be the revolutionary press release it might have been. Instead of doing the expected thing -- romanticizing the rebels, demonizing their French colonizers, valorizing terrorism in the name of proletariat fervor -- Pontecorvo went at once deeper and higher, examining each side's contradictions while preserving his own lucid historical perspective. Thus he introduces the Algerians -- led by the darkly charismatic Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag) -- bathed in beatific light, their elegantly chiseled faces seemingly cut from alabaster, their eyes lambent with self-sacrifice. But minutes later, he follows three rebel women as they plant bombs in two cafes and an air terminal, his camera lingering on the faces of the men, women and children who will soon be obliterated. Pontecorvo doesn't portray La Pointe and his band as a bunch of dead-enders, but they're not secular saints, either.

Similarly, he gives the French forces their own moral back-and-forth, clearly condemning them for extralegal bombings and torture that can literally be described as overkill, but Col. Mathieu (Jean Martin), the fictional leader of the French paratroopers who fought the rebels, is no Kubrickian caricature. He's a former member of the French Resistance, a veteran of the war in Indochina, a disciplined, tightly controlled, world-weary man whose tactical understanding of his enemy -- he's systematically decapitating the revolutionary cells, spider hole by spider hole -- doesn't obscure his deeper comprehension of the political and historical realities he's fighting. He's pretty confident that his side will win the battle, but he's even more confident that it will lose the war.

The greatness of "The Battle of Algiers" lies in its ability to embrace moral ambiguity without succumbing to it. And although Pontecorvo has been rightfully lionized for the realism of the film, its visual artistry -- the carefully composed shots, their gestural grace, their unerring temporal and spatial logic -- is as potent as anything by Goya. It takes endless pains to look this spontaneous, as directors from John Frankenheimer and Ken Loach to Steven Soderbergh and David O. Russell -- just a few of the myriad filmmakers influenced by "The Battle of Algiers" -- would tell you.

There are no heroes in this film, unless you count the ululating crowds that serve as a sort of Greek chorus throughout; otherwise, the escalating skirmishes and attacks seem to culminate not in victory but in a far more deflating sense of inevitability. Mathieu is right; he will win the battle and lose the war -- the latter of which Pontecorvo attributes to the deep need for pride, deeper even than that for freedom, among the disenfranchised. It's timely that "The Battle of Algiers" is being released now, not only because of real or notional parallels to Iraq but also because its ideal bookend recently hit theaters: "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara." To see them both in close proximity is to consider what still seems to be the hardest lesson of all, the one about hearts and minds.

The Battle of Algiers (123 minutes, at the Landmark E Street, in French and Arabic with subtitles) is not rated; it contains violence and adult themes.


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