Film Director Gillo Pontecorvo; 'Battle of Algiers' Broke Ground

Brahim Haggiag, center, stars in
Brahim Haggiag, center, stars in "The Battle of Algiers," the 1966 fictionalized film about the Algerian uprising against the French. Some of the actors were actual guerrilla fighters. (Rialto Pictures)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 16, 2006

Gillo Pontecorvo, 86, the Italian-born director of "The Battle of Algiers," a fictionalized account of a guerrilla struggle against French rule that set a bold standard in political filmmaking, died Oct. 12 at a hospital in Rome. He had a heart attack months ago, news reports said.

Mr. Pontecorvo made only five feature films and several documentaries. Unsurprisingly for a onetime Communist Party member, most had political sympathies for the left. Among them was "Burn!" (1969), which starred Marlon Brando as a 19th-century English agent who provokes a Caribbean slave revolt. The actor called it his favorite film.

Mr. Pontecorvo is best remembered for "The Battle of Algiers" (1966), regarded by many critics as a masterpiece. Made almost entirely with nonprofessional actors -- some of whom were guerrilla fighters -- the film has a semi-documentary feel with jittery, hand-held cameras that race around the casbah.

This gave viewers a jarring and intimate sense of reality unfolding during the Algerian war for independence (1954 to 1962). Mr. Pontecorvo called his work "fiction written under the dictatorship of fact."

Based on interviews with soldiers and Resistance leaders, Mr. Pontecorvo and his frequent scriptwriting collaborator Franco Solinas showed the cruelty and humanity of all sides in the fight. The scenes of torture by the French authorities are weighed against the insurgents' massacre of young civilians at a cafe.

In another memorable scene, the French colonel who is the chief nemesis of the Algerian guerrillas lectures the visiting press about the political situation. He articulates an awareness that he is on the wrong side of history but that as a soldier, he has a role to fulfill.

The colonel's ambivalence is central to Mr. Pontecorvo's powerful filmmaking. "Pontecorvo makes many French soldiers and colonists credible and sympathetic figures, caught up in a larger, politico-economic pattern of exploitation," film historian David Thomson wrote. "In short, it is the more politically convincing because it does not manipulate its people."

Mr. Pontecorvo's film was a direct confrontation of French imperialism, which had only been touched on in earlier works, including Jean-Luc Goddard's "Le Petit Soldat." As a result, "The Battle of Algiers" was banned in France for five years even though it won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival. The director received death threats from those sympathetic to the military forces in France.

"The Battle of Algiers" was often mentioned as an influence on director Costa-Gavras ("Z," "Missing") and reportedly was a primer on insurgent strategy for the Black Panthers and the Defense Department.

"So many critics see 'The Battle of Algiers' as propaganda," Mr. Pontecorvo told the New York Times in 1969. "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."

"My subject," he said, "is the sadness and laceration that the birth of a nation means in our time."

Gilberto Pontecorvo was born Nov. 19, 1919, in Pisa to an affluent and secular Jewish family. His nine siblings included the atomic scientist Bruno Pontecorvo, who defected to the Soviet Union from England in 1950.


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