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Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers (1966) stands out among political films for its direct impact: it has been studied equally by revolutionary groups and governments throughout the world, including the Pentagon in the lead-up to the Iraq war. A meticulous reconstruction of recent history--the film was shot in Algiers only a few years after the events took place--it provides an unprecedented view inside the operations of an actual insurgent organization. Leading FLN member Saadi Yacef plays a close counterpart of himself and served as a producer and consultant on the film, lending it a rare degree of authenticity. While it is evident that the film ultimately sides with the Algerians, it is nonetheless remarkable for its careful balance; Pontecorvo clearly explains the rationales behind the actions of both sides, and he doesn't shy away from depicting the brutality of both sides, either. Still, the decision at the 1966 Venice Film Festival to award the Golden Lion to the film scandalized the French, for whom the recently ended Algerian war was still very much a contentious subject. The film would not be distributed in France for another four years. Ultimately, the Algerians as a people become the true protagonist in the film rather than, say, El-Hadi Jaffar or Colonel Matthieu; indeed, one of the most interesting things the film accomplishes is a very concrete depiction of how historical events shape the development of an Algerian national identity.
However, The Battle of Algiers is not just a political document; as filmmaking it is tremendously accomplished, and its pseudo-documentary style has influenced many directors seeking to create an aura of authenticity and immediacy when depicting recent historical events. The heightened contrast and grain in the black-and-white film stock and the hand-held camerawork are indeed supposed to suggest documentary newsreel footage, but Marcello Gatti's cinematography is in no way crude or slapdash. Many shots are beautifully composed, and the camera movements are precisely executed. One example of this is how Gatti uses telephoto and zoom lenses to pick faces out of a crowd. The way he lingers on the visages of ordinary people to create brief but expressive, visually memorable portraits is akin to those in the films of Pasolini or Visconti. Ennio Morricone's music is a striking combination of elements from the Western classical tradition and indigenous Algerian music; in the opening scene, he even quotes from the first movement of Bach's St. Matthew Passion. His oft-noted choice to accompany the aftermath of two separate bombings in the Casbah and the French section with the same, deeply moving chorale-like music is a masterstroke of simplicity and directness. Another notable feature of the soundtrack is the voiceover readings of government reports and FLN communiqués, a device which cements the overall impression of historical concreteness and accuracy.
With the notable exception of French actor Jean Martin, who plays Colonel Mathieu, the cast is mostly non-professional. It is a mark of Pontecorvo's skill as a director that he is able to elicit convincing performances from all involved. The film also works as a strong example of storytelling. Many political films, following the lead of Costa-Gavras' Z (1969), try to couch their political message within an entertaining fictional story, often in the thriller genre, or they give real-life events the dramatic shape of a fiction film. While that approach has its merits, The Battle of Algiers succeeds on its own terms, without compromises or concessions to a mass audience. It is every bit as gripping as a fictional thriller thanks to its compelling story and controlled pacing. This is a film which not only holds up under repeat viewings, it gets better each time you see it.
For many years The Battle of Algiers has been available on home video in various editions, ranging in quality from not bad to downright miserable. Criterion's new high-definition transfer, not surprisingly, makes all earlier editions irrelevant. The black-and-white image is clean, displaying minimal damage, and has excellent contrast considering the source material. Viewing the DVD on a good quality television monitor or video projector, it is heartening to see how the artistry behind the film's cinematography shines through, something that was also evident in the recent theatrical tour of a new 35mm print. The mono sound is clear and without undue distortion.
The supplements on this three-disc box set are outstanding, perhaps the most thoughtfully organized of any Criterion title to date. Disc 2 ("Pontecorvo and the Film") includes Gillo Pontecorvo: The Dictatorship of Truth, a fine 1992 overview of Pontecorvo's filmmaking career narrated by Edward Said and containing clips from his films and interviews with various individuals, including Pontecorvo himself. Here as elsewhere, Pontecorvo comes across as an individual of tremendous erudition and insight. My one gripe is that the film spends too much time speculating about the reasons behind Pontecorvo's silence. Criterion's new documentary on the making of the film is excellent, seamlessly weaving together recollections by the producer and actor Saadi Yacef, Pontecorvo, Gatti, Morricone, the editor Mario Morra and the actor Jean Martin into a coherent and engaging narrative. Ordinarily I don't care much for tributes by contemporary directors of the kind shown in the segment entitled Five Directors--unless it's someone like Martin Scorsese, who has genuinely interesting insights into film history and aesthetics. However, in this case the directors-- Spike Lee, Mira Nair, Julian Schnabel, Steven Soderbergh and Oliver Stone--are thoughtfully chosen.
Disc 3 ("The Film and History") starts with Remembering History, a new 69-minute documentary reconstructing the context for the Algerian war of independence through interviews with historians and surviving key players on both sides, among them Saadi Yacef, fellow FLN member Zohra Drif-Bitat, and General Massu. This documentary admirably conveys the historical and moral complexities behind the Algerian insurrection and the French military response. For me the most thought-provoking part was where Yacef and Drif-Bitat discuss the rationale behind their decision to bomb French civilians. As this documentary and Pontecorvo's film makes clear, the first indiscriminate civilian bombings were actually carried out by the French; the FLN-sponsored bombings were done subsequently in retaliation. Whether or not one personally views such bombings as justified in wartime, that sort of contextualization is necessary. Because of its relevance to contemporary events, everyone should see this documentary regardless of their interest in Pontecorvo's film. The same is true of Etat d'armes, an excerpt from a longer 2002 documentary in which French military officers discuss the use of torture and summary executions in Algeria during that era.
In view of the wrenching complexities of what has come before both in terms of the film itself and the supplements on this disc, it is a bit incongruous to see former government counterterrorism coordinators Richard Clark and Michael Sheehan and ABC news executive Christopher Isham glibly characterizing the FLN as "terrorists" in Battle of Algiers: A Case Study, a segment which examines the film in terms of global terrorism today. Calling the FLN and other similar organizations "terrorists" versus, say, "insurgents," begs the question of how terrorism is defined and who has the power to apply the label to whom. Tellingly, the debate in this segment is focused mainly on political strategies to win over local populations in the "war of ideas." Clark, Sheehan and Isham sidestep deeper and more difficult questions such as the moral legitimacy of colonial occupation and the problems of self-determination. Still, it's a fascinating document and I'm glad Criterion decided to include it.
Lastly, Gillo Pontecorvo's Return to Algiers combines documentary footage shot by Pontecorvo and his son Marco during a 1992 visit to Algiers with an interview Pontecorvo made for Italian television the same year, shortly after President Mohammed Boudiaf's assassination. In it they examine the economic problems Algeria is facing, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, and the Algerian government's controversial decision to cancel the second round of elections in 1992 after the Islamic Salvation Front made an unexpectedly strong showing in the polls. Pontecorvo proves to be a gifted reporter, unafraid to ask difficult questions and to examine more than one side to the story, at the same time not avoiding critical judgment under the pretext of "objectivity." His uncommon intelligence makes it all the more regrettable that Pontecorvo has not made any new feature films since Ogre in 1979. The 55-page booklet accompanying the set is also full of invaluable information, though sometimes the text is a little difficult to read because of the use of colored backgrounds.
The Battle of Algiers surely counts among the most important films in the history of cinema--not only for its striking aesthetic innovations and its penetrating insights, but also for its sheer force as a political statement. Thankfully, Criterion has risen to the film's challenge with a package of outstanding quality, one that is of value both to the casual film buff and the history scholar. This set is a must-buy for anyone who wants to better understand the world we live in today.
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by James Steffen