Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers is something rare. The last two movies I reviewed (Lions for Lambs and Redacted) are protest films so topical that they already seem out of date. Algiers is so well handled, so broad in its scope that it is a form of protest film that works without being tied to time.
Simply put, The Battle for Algiers is just that. The French have held onto “Algeria” for more than a century and want to maintain it as a colony even after World War II and the week’s long disaster that was Dien Bien Phu in what would become Vietnam. The French military humiliated in Dien Bien Phu were not going to fall victim again to a group of almost rag-tag resisters.
The film begins towards the end of the main narrative, towards the end of 1957. Most of the rest of the film is in standard chronological narrative leading up to the “beginning.” This beginning shows a man who had obviously been tortured, so much so that it is difficult for him to stand (this is just the first piece of evidence for this behavior).
The true end of the film is a form of documentary of protests in Algeria in 1960 that upset the French public enough to call for an end to the colonization of Algeria.
Ali la Pointe (Brahim Hagiag) is the exemplar of the Algerian resistance movement; Colonel Bigeard (Jean Martin) is the exemplar of the French military. The story is simple to summarize, but difficult to grasp well in just a couple of viewings.
Algiers is a raw film, both in the presentation and the story. The filming isn’t sloppy, but it is evident that there was little time to rehearse—you can argue (and I think rightly so) that this adds to the realism of this black and white piece of social exploration. Also, there is no way to show a resistance film without the raw hatred from one side and the complex nature of being an occupying force.
Mr. Pontecorvo was a master at balancing the story. Once the chronological portion of the narrative begins, there is roughly an even balance between the resistance and the French. As the film progresses, the film focuses more on the Algerians. Here things get very complex. “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” Mr. Pontecorvo, I think, tries to strike some balance in this paradigm but doesn’t quite make it; to me, however, this is not a failing. The Algerians are the underdogs and we see this time and time again; for instance the “Muslim” section of the city is cordoned off by razor wire and its denizens have to pass through checkpoints (the metaphor here is obvious). It is difficult to justify the way the resistance bombs populated spaces, since the victims are going to be bystanders instead of military, but this is handled with just one word—it does not forgive, but it does offer an example. If you have lived in a land that is occupied, a host of “bad” emotions pervade.
There is a scene where the camera is on the French side looking through very heavy smoke at the Algerian side where we can barely see anyone. They are asked what they want: they want “Independence, Pride, Freedom.” And the most of these is pride. The Battle for Algiers focuses so plainly on this one aspect that when it is vocalized, it is surprising. Sandwiched between Independence and Freedom it can be missed. Think of it like this: “I’m Proud to Be American,” or “America, love it or leave it.” Dependence and a concomitant limit on freedom can be tolerated if there is no shame attached; shame is the fuse, easily lit.
The following two paragraphs are not directly related to the film but to the context. Feel free to skip it. I recommend the film without reservation. I also thought the music was brilliant throughout.
After the Second World War, most colonial countries had to begin divesting, if not just cutting loose, colonies based on a host of reasons. France was learning that holdings in Asia and North Africa were becoming too expensive to maintain. This didn’t stop them from trying. If you hold a beehive that is calm and you can claim the honey easily, then all is well. Now, if the bees become ticked off it becomes more and more dangerous to hold onto the hive and to extract the honey. Still, you are addicted to the honey. It is going to take many stings before you are willing to say “I want the honey, but not that badly; splenda will do.” The bees will eventually get ticked off, so failure to control colonies will happen to all powers. All it takes is one spark—look at both 1848 and 1968 as examples how unrest in one country can lead to unrest in many others.
This film has been in the news off and on since the Abu Ghraib scandal broke in 2004. The reasons are obvious. Much has already been written about this topic. I chose the film based on this; however, I have done my best to keep the current situation out of the main review. I recommend the film in any context; the current situation just makes it hit home a little harder.
What did you think of this review?