Gillo Pontecorvo’s gritty account of Algeria’s historic battle for independence is still electric viewing more than 50 years on, according to Dan Slevin.
Banned in France for five years, The Battle of Algiers – 45th-equal in the 2022 Sight & Sound list of the greatest films of all time – is an incendiary piece of filmmaking in more ways than one.
The first feature film to come out of newly-independent Algeria (actually an Italian co-production), it was supported by the fledgling Algerian government because it told the story of that independence fight, especially the early part of the insurgency from 1954 to 1957. But it is not a propaganda film for a victor.
Director Gillo Pontecorvo (an Italian former journalist and anti-fascist) wanted to make a film that told the story from both sides and that would feel to a viewer as real as documentary. He succeeded spectacularly, to the extent that for US audiences a title card had to be added telling audiences that no documentary footage had actually been used.
Filmed in gritty, verité, black and white, the film starts with a raid on the hideout of Ali la Pointe, a former petty criminal who was radicalised in prison and who became an important revolutionary leader. As he hides in the shadows waiting for the French security forces to find him, we flash back to his earlier life and the beginning of the long and terrible battle for the Casbah.
To help audiences suspend their disbelief, Pontecorvo cast unknowns and non-actors including one of the actual leaders of the National Liberation Front, Saadi Yacef, playing a dramatised version of himself. The only professional in the cast was former French paratrooper and theatre actor Jean Martin who plays a composite version of the French counter-insurgency leadership and who, with his implacable bearing and ever-present sunglasses makes him seem rather cooler than he should be considering the character’s legacy of torture and brutality.
The same weekend we watched this, my wife and I also screened Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and in that film (also set around 1957), hero Guy is drafted for the Algerian War not long after falling for Deneuve’s beautiful shop assistant and I couldn’t help imagining that, despite being complete opposites stylistically, the two films were set in a shared universe where Guy finally stops singing and everything changes from Technicolor to black and white and back again.
Even though there really aren’t very many films like The Battle of Algiers, it remains extremely influential. It was nominated for three different Oscars in three different years (which must be some kind of record) and it won the Golden Lion in Venice in 1966. But its greatest legacy might be political. Freedom fighters (or terrorists depending on your point of view) would often screen it for inspiration despite the fact that at the end of the film, the FLN has lost and the French are, for a while, triumphant.
But Pontecorvo’s coda, showing the continued resistance, suggests that while the French may have won the battle, they were going to lose the Algerian War, a fact that was not lost on the Pentagon when they screened the film in 2003 to demonstrate the problems faced when an occupying force “loses the war of ideas”.
Pontecorvo went on to direct another film with an anti-colonial theme in 1969. Burn! (or Queimada!) was about a slave revolt and the creation of a fictional banana republic in the Caribbean in the 19th Century, and starred Marlon Brando, but he only made one more feature film after that. He directed the Venice Film Festival for a period in the early 90s.
The Battle of Algiers is available in NZ as a digital rental from Apple and a rental DVD at the usual high quality services. Madman were distributing the DVD but it appears to be out of print. For high definition fans, Criterion have a Blu-ray which has the usual array of excellent extras but you will need a Blu-ray player that can play discs from the USA and some fairly deep pockets as Criterions remain a premium product. The film is re-released to cinemas every so often, too, most recently on its 50th anniversary in 2016.
Dan Slevin is spending 2023 watching each of the Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time (according to the BFI/Sight & Sound magazine).
The Sight & Sound Top 50 project is intended to encourage more attention to the greatest films of the past – in the same way we still read old books and listen to old music we should be appreciating old movies.