General 11-18-2004

The Battle of Algiers

A review reprinted from Ruminator.


Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo
Criterion Collection

Criterion’s re-release of Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic film dramatizing Algeria’s revolt against the French in the late 1950s and early ‘60s echoes loudly in today’s debates.

Completed in 1965, just three years after Algeria finally gained its independence from France, Battle traces the collision courses of Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), an illiterate thief, swindler and pimp who emerges as one of the leaders of the revolution, and Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin), the seasoned counterrevolutionary instrument that France deploys to quell escalating assassinations, terrorist bombings and labor strife.

Deliberately shot in grainy black-and-white—sometimes with handheld cameras—to give the footage the rawness and immediacy of a newsreel or documentary, the film could hardly look more different from such glossy takes on revolution as Doctor Zhivago or Warren Beatty’s Reds. While Pontecorvo doesn’t shy away from depicting the brutal violence that is the nature of this beast (there are scenes of torture and many killings), neither does he excessively glorify the means both sides employ to achieve their ends. When a captured Algerian bomb-maker is asked by French reporters at a press conference if it is vile to attack innocent victims with explosives smuggled in women’s baskets he replies, “Isn’t it even more vile to drop napalm bombs on villages from the air? Give me the bombers, and you can have the baskets.”

The film highlights the increasingly inflamed passions that drove each side to greater depravities. While Pontecorvo’s sympathies are clearly with the Algerians’ fight for independence, he is willing to show that, for both sides, innocence is the first casualty of war.

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