The Battle of Algiers (La Battaglia di Algeri) [DVD]
Director : Gillo Pontecorvo
Screenplay : Gillo Pontecorvo & Franco Solinas (based on an idea by Saadi Yacef)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1965
Stars : Brahim Haggiag (Ali La Pointe), Jean Martin (Colonel Mathieu), Saadi Yacef (El-hadi Jaffar), Samia Kerbash (Fatiha), Fusia El Kader (Hassiba), Ugo Paletti (The Captain), Mohamed Ben Kassen (Petit Omar)
For many, Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers is the pinnacle of leftwing oppositional cinema, a sharply political film that draws the viewer in with its documentary aesthetic as it relives a crucial moment of anti-colonial resistance. Made in 1965, a scant three years after Algeria had won its freedom from France, The Battle of Algiers is shockingly relevant today in the way it casts a troublingly symapthetic light on those who are so easily deemed “terrorists.” Pontecorvo, who was active in the Italian resistance to Mussolini during World War II, puts a human face on the atrocities committed by both sides, showing that war is always ugly, particularly in its necessity.
Drawing from the socialist imperative best exemplified in the early works of Soviet directors like Sergei Eisenstein, Pontecorvo resists the urge to locate heroism in a single individual, instead relying on a collective protagonist to tell his story. No one man or woman was responsible for Algeria winning its independence after nearly 150 years of colonial rule, thus Pontecorvo focuses on dozens of major characters, some of whom only occupy the screen for a few moments, but still leave a lasting impression. It is tempting to see Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), an illiterate thief whose political consciousness is raised and who eventually becomes a crucial leader in the Algerian resistance, as a protagonist of sorts, but at best he is a metonym, a cinematic symbol who stands in for the hundreds of young men who found a calling in political resistance, thus giving definition to their lives. We remember Ali La Pointe because he appears in more scenes than any other character, but he is no more memorable than the faces we see standing in lines waiting to go through checkpoints or the three young women who disguise themselves as Europeans in order to plant bombs in French cafes.
Part of the film’s success is due to Pontecorvo’s insistence that nonactors fill the majority of roles. Like Vittorio de Sica and other proponents of neorealism, Pontecorvo realized that real faces have an incredible power on the screen that transends any lack of formal training in the art of acting. Because most of the people cast in The Battle of Algiers were essentially playing themselves, there was little or no “acting” required. They simply had to project themselves back a few years into history and relive the struggle. Pontecorvo even got Saadi Yacef, a leader in the Algerian Liberation Front (FLN) who produced the film and whose memoirs served as its inspiration, to play a variation of himself on-screen. The only professional actor who appears in the film is stage veteran Jean Martin, who plays French Colonel Mathieu, the man taxed with the difficult job of putting down the resistance.
The effectiveness of the nonactors is enhanced by Pontecorvo’s decision to shoot The Battle of Algiers in a handheld documentary style that makes it at times indistinguishable from the newsreels documenting the actual events. He refused to shoot in color, and even selected film stock that would enhance the graininess of the image, giving it a rough texture and feel of actuality. However, as powerful as the documentary style is, particularly when depicting moments of violence, the film works so well because Pontecorvo seamlessly integrates it with subtle moments of subjective filmmaking that draw us into the characters’ experiences in the way a newsreel never could. The best example of this is the sequence when three Algerian women secretly plant bombs in crowded civilian locations. One woman who leaves hers in a French cafe can’t resist looking around at all the people—innocent and otherwise—who have absolutely no idea that they are about to die. Pontecorvo dares us to look these people, knowing that they will soon be victims, which forces us to ask the hard questions about the nature of war and resistance and what is justified and what is not.
The Battle of Algiers could have easily become a simplistic romanticization of leftwing rebellion against colonial oppression, but Pontecorvo again refuses to go with easy answers. Rather than portraying everything from the Algerian point of view, he also looks at things from the French side, showing that colonialism is a complex cultural phenomenon that cannot be simplisticly diluted down to a binary of evil oppressors and innocent oppressed. This is best illustrated in the film’s use of the same music at two different points in the film as the camera surveys the death of destruction caused by both sides; the message is that death is always a tragedy.
As much as it looks at both sides, though, The Battle of Algiers does have a clearly distinguished point of view. Pontecorvo is on the side of the Algerians, and he views their fight for freedom as necessary and moral, despite their use of tactics that are, for lack of a better word, “terrorism.” Yet, this does not mean that he wholeheartedly embraces the violence that emerges from such resistance, and the film continues to move audiences precisely because of the poetic way in which it depicts the humanity of all sides, even when one is in the wrong.
|The Battle of Algiers Criterion Collection Director-Approved DVD|
|Audio||French Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment|
|Release Date||October 12, 2004|
|Criterion has given The Battle of Algiers a wonderful new high-definition anamorphic widescreen transfer from a restored 35mm fine-grain master positive. The transfer was supervised by cinematographer Marcello Gatti, and it looks superb. The high-contrast black-and-white visuals have strong detail and solid blacks. Digital restoration has cleaned up the image, leaving it virtually blemish-free without losing the intended graininess that gives the film its documentary feel.|
|The original monaural soundtrack was digitally mastered from a 35mm optical print track and has also been given the digital restoration treatment. It sounds good throughout, with virtually no ambient hiss. The beautiful musical score by Ennio Morricone and Gillo Pontecorvo sounds especially nice, even given the datedness of the soundtrack itself.|
|Criterion has put together an almost overwhelming array of documentaries to go along with this release of The Battle of Algiers -- so many, in fact, that they had to reserve two discs just for the supplements alone. The documentaries go in-depth into both the production of the film and the extensive history of Algeria and France’s occupation of it. This is certainly one of the best special editions Criterion has put together in recent years. |
The first disc of supplements focuses on Gillo Pontecorvo and the film’s production. You can start with the 1992 documentary Gillo Pontecorvo: The Dictatorship of Truth, narrated by literary critic Edward Said, to get a biographical background of the auteur. Then there’s the newly produced 51-minute Marxist Poetry: The Making of The Battle of Algiers, which is an in-depth look at the film’s production that brings together interviews with virtually everyone who worked on the film. “Five Directors” is an interesting featurette that weaves together new interviews with Spike Lee, Mira Nair, Julian Schnabel, Steven Soderbergh, and Oliver Stone about the The Battle of Algiers’ influence on them and cinema in general.
Moving over to the second disc of supplements, which focuses on placing the film in its historical context, we have Remembering History, a brand-new, 69-min. documentary about the Algerian fight for independence. There are also 28 minutes of excerpts from the 2002 documentary États d’armes, which feature French military officers discussing France’s often disturbing use of torture and execution in Algeria. Then there’s “The Battle of Algiers: A Case Study”, a new 25-min. featurette in which Christopher E. Isham, chief of investigative projects for ABC News, moderates a discussion of the film with Richard Clarke, former national counterterrorism coordinator and author of Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror and Michael A. Sheehan, former State Department coordinator for counterterrorism. Lastly, the disc includes a poignant, hour-long 1992 documentary with the rather self-explanatory title Gillo Pontecorvo’s Return to Algiers.
As always with these big, special edition Criterion sets, there is a beautifully designed insert book, this one running 56 pages and containing excerpts from Saadi Yacef’s original account of his arrest, a reprinted excerpt from the film’s screenplay, a reprinted interview with cowriter Franco Solinas, a new essay by film scholar Peter Matthews, and biographical sketches on key figures in the French-Algerian War.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images Copyright © The Criterion Collection