Pontecorvo’s exhilarating political saga covers the insurgency by Algerian militants against the French occupation of Algiers between the early ’50s and the mid-60s (when Algeria won its independence). What’s so arresting straight off about the film is the nervy, seemingly disjointed fusion of documentary-style realism and more conventional narrative strategies as it follows Ali La Pointe (Brahmin Hadjadj), a young Algerian nationalist, and his involvement in the FLN, an organization devoted to the liberation of their homeland from the hands of the French colonialists. Under the orders of their headstrong commander, Djafar (Yacef Saadi), the FLN rampantly employs terrorist tactics and assassinations directed at the colonial residents of their city, and, on this count, Battle of Algiers is unsparing — depicting violence full-on, whether perpetrated in the mass-space of cafés or at point-blank range of the militants’ targets.
As Pontocorvo takes us deeper into the lives of its various characters, and into the daily rhythms of life in the Casbah district of Algiers, home to much of its Arabic population, we begin to feel a kinship with their struggle. This is not just a ragtag group of scruffy, discontented men who decide to direct their rage against the System, but an intricate pyramidal chain of command whose members work intently to unshackle chains forged by 130 years of colonial oppression. And not just men, the struggle involves women resistors too, and Pontecorvo singles out three, all of whom resign to get their hands bloody for the cause. In one of Algiers’ gamut of extraordinary sequences, we follow the women as they sneak past French checkpoints and into the city’s European quarters on a bombing mission. Such scenes are not easy to watch, for the deaths of innocent civilians can hardly be justified under any circumstances. But it’s a double-edged sword as the film’s makers are shrewd to point out. They make sure to give equal time to the often brutal retaliatory measures employed by the French army, including (surprising considering the time when it was made) candidly shot scenes of torture.
Tonally, the film almost founders under the weight of its political gravity and a screenplay that can’t find adequate footing with any of its characters. That is, until the arrival of Col. Mathieu (Jean Martin), a hard-nosed militaryman hired to bring order to the increasingly chaotic city. Here’s when Algiers snaps awake as a crackling socio-political thriller. Mathieu institutes a rigorous system of crackdowns and interrogation. A veteran of the anti-Nazi resistance, he decides the only way to destroy the FLN is to charge his way to the top of its executive chain and bring down Djafar. Hence, Algiers builds, not on the backs of any single character, but as an anthemic recall of historic vignettes.
Pontecorvo, together with his cinematographer Marcello Gatti and editors Mario Morra and Mario Serandrei, patch together a kind of rough-hewn, blood-spattered quilt that honors the Algerian resistance, rising to a climactic sequence brilliantly recreating a mass street demonstration. The off-handedness of Algiers’ style is highly deceptive when one considers the logistics and special effects deployed masterfully during its frentic action- and crowd-filled passages. And weaved into this gritty fabric is the uncannily gorgeous music by Pontecorvo and Ennio Morricone — blending Arabic strains with Morricone’s haunting guitar notes. The score for Battle of Algiers sets an indelible mood of danger, desperation and the irony of victory when weighed against the losses incurred along the way.
Inevitably, given the times we live in, what really resonates on watching Algiers is its message about the widespread loss of civilian life and the staggering destruction to civic infrastructure as the heaviest costs of violent uprisings. Above that, we learn the harsh lesson that all occupations are doomed to fail. The Pentagon apparently screened Battle of Algiers in 2003, the year of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Considering our actions in the years’ since, it’s clear that, having learned nothing from history (nor taken much heed to this film), we are in the midst of repeating it.
Directed by: Gillo Pontecorvo
Written by: Gillo Pontecorvo, Franco Solinas
Cast: Brahmin Hadjadi, Jean Martin, Yacef Saadi, Samia Kerbash, Ugo Paletti, Fusia El Kader, Omar