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The Battle of Algiers
1965 - - 118 Mins.
Director: Gillo Pontecorvo
Producer: Antonio Musu
Written By: Franco Solinas, Gillo Pontecorvo
Starring: Brahim Haggiag, Jean Martin, Yacef Saadi
Review by: David Rolston
Official Site:

Torn from the headlines of 1959
Following the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11th, 2001, “The Battle of Algiers” -- a 1965 foreign film written and directed by a pair of lapsed Italian communists -- became a hot topic in Washington D.C., with screenings at the Pentagon. The attendant notoriety helped secure a release of the film on DVD in Europe and now in the U.S. via Criterion, and a planned theatrical re-release from the revival distributor Rialto.

“The Battle of Algiers” was filmed on location in Algeria a mere three years after the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) wrestled control of the country from France and the entaglements of 130 years of colonial occupation. Director Gillo Pontevorco employed a cinema verite approach, using hand-held cameras in the Muslim Casbah, and amateur actors from the streets of Algiers to bolster the film’s faux documentary conceit.

Pontevorco’s leftist background and sympathy for anti-colonialism certainly helped secure him the director’s chair on a project that was intended as communist propoganda with a significant percentage of the funding coming directly from the fledgling Algerian government. The FLN arranged for Pontevorco to have unprecedented access to locations in or near where the events depicted actually occurred, and was provided large crowds of extras. The end product was so effective, the producers deemed it wise to remind the audiences of the day that no newsreel footage had been used via a title card that preceeds the film's opening.

The story, loosely based on the recollections of Algerian revolutionary Saadi Yacef, documents the organization of an urban Guerilla army from the inside. The first half of the film follows the experiences of Ali La Pointe, an uneducated former boxer, honed to ramrod toughness by life as an impoverished member of the oppressed and disenfranchised Muslim Algerian community. La Pointe and a number of other characters in the film are taken straight from Yacef’s biography, and Yacef even portrays a thinly veiled version of himself in the film. The film depicts La Pointe’s impetous and defiant response to a racist insult, and how this seemingly insignificant event begins a vicious cycle of systemic imprisonment, and provides the psychological groundwork for his ideological transformation from petty criminal to muslim revolutionary.

La Pointe’s conversion is portrayed with such economy and simplicity that his subsequent actions seem disconcertingly inevitable; the campaign by La Pointe and the other FLN leaders to organize and control the Muslim quarter, attacks against french policemen which prompt reprisals, and the escalation to urban terrorist tactics which will seem unnervingly familiar to modern audiences who have followed recent events in Bosnia, Moscow, Afghanistan, Spain and the Middle east. The most famous sequences in the film depict the involvement of both women and children engaged in terrorist activities, illustrating vividly that the greatest danger in combating terrorism in the modern world is in understimating the resolve of the opposition. As articulated by a character in the film, those without wealth, legal power, political organization or military often fail to see a distinction between smart bombs that level a city block, and suicide bombs detonated in a bus.

In its initial release, the film created a firestorm of controversy, lauded by critics, nominated for several Academy awards and banned by the French government after bombs disrupted a planned screening. The French ban which remained in place until 1971 is especially ironic considering the sympathetic treatment accorded the dramatically heroic Colonel Mathieu portrayed by the only professional actor in the cast, Frenchman Jean Martin. Mathieu seems to see better than anyone the inherent contradictions and slippery slope of occupation, as he ruthlessly pursues the dismantling of the FLN terrorist cells while openly admitting admiration for the courage, ingenuity and conviction of his adversaries. Mathieu is a complex world weary soldier who unapologetically employs any means necessary in fighting a messy undeclared war without boundaries, uniforms or Geneva conventions.

In spite of the FLN's role in the financing, Pontevorco’s stubborn pursuit of authenticity and artistic integrity overpowered the film’s partisan origins, transforming it into the even-handed examination of insurgency in the Muslim world which has garned the film a well deserved reputation as both dramatic historical document and relevant politcal treatise.

While much has been made of the film’s pertinance to the situation in Iraq, its parallels to the problematic and increasingly untenable conflict between Isreali settlers and Palestinians in the occupied territories is even more striking. Current events may have brought “The Battle of Algiers” to the attention of modern audiences because of its non judgemental depiction of a terrorist campaign waged by human beings rather than psychopathic amoral monsters, but in the final analysis, it’s the film’s artisanry, clarity of narrative, and heady mixture of politics, history and keenly observed human nature that distinguishes it as a landmark in cinematic history.
Movie Guru Rating
An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant.
  4.5 out of 5 stars

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