Shot in a gripping, quasi-documentary style, The Battle of Algiers uses a cast of untrained actors coupled with a stern voiceover. Initially, the film focuses on the conversion of young hoodlum Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag) to F.L.N. (the Algerian Liberation Front). However, as a sequence of outrages and violent counter-terrorist measures ensue, it becomes clear that, as in Eisenstein's October, it is the Revolution itself that is the true star of the film.
Pontecorvo balances cinematic tension with grimly acute political insight. He also manages an evenhandedness in depicting the adversaries. He doesn't flinch from demonstrating the civilian consequences of the F.L.N.'s bombings, while Colonel Mathieu, the French office brought in to quell the nationalists, is played by Jean Martin as a determined, shrewd, and, in his own way, honorable man. However, the closing scenes of the movie--a welter of smoke, teeming street demonstrations, and the pealing white noise of ululations--leaves the viewer both intellectually and emotionally convinced of the rightfulness of the liberation struggle. This is surely among a handful of the finest movies ever made. --David Stubbs
TWO-DISC BLU-RAY SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES
• High-definition digital transfer, supervised by director of photography Marcello Gatti, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
• Gillo Pontecorvo: The Dictatorship of Truth, a documentary narrated by literary critic Edward Said
• Marxist Poetry: The Making of “The Battle of Algiers,” a documentary featuring interviews with Pontecorvo, Gatti, composer Ennio Morricone, and others
• Interviews with Spike Lee, Mira Nair, Julian Schnabel, Steven Soderbergh, and Oliver Stone on the film’s influence, style, and importance
• Remembering History, a documentary reconstructing the Algerian experience of the battle for independence
• “États d’armes,” a documentary excerpt featuring senior French military officers recalling the use of torture and execution to combat the Algerian rebellion
• “The Battle of Algiers”: A Case Study, a video piece featuring U.S. counterterrorism experts
• Gillo Pontecorvo’s Return to Algiers, a documentary in which the filmmaker revisits the country after three decades of independence
• Production gallery
• Theatrical and rerelease trailers
• PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Peter Matthews, excerpts from Algeria’s National Liberation Front leader Saadi Yacef’s original account of his arrest, excerpts from the film’s screenplay, a reprinted interview with cowriter Franco Solinas, and biographical sketches of key figures in the French-Algerian War
Great works of literature speak to all ages. Does the same apply to masterpieces of cinema? The Battle Of Algiers originally came to the United States in 1967. It spoke to that era's inner-city strife and racial tensions, and the escalating campaign in Vietnam. Re-released across America in January 2004, The Battle of Algiers seems even more relevant now. Set in Algeria from 1954-1957, the film portrays the Islamic Algerian nationalist terrorist campaign, organized by the National Liberation Front (NLF), to drive out the French, who had colonized the city Algiers in 1830.
Contemporary journalists and movie reviewers are not the only commentators to have likened the guerilla uprising in Algeria to the current situation in Iraq. On October 28, 2003, former United States National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski said, "If you want to understand what's going on in Iraq right now, I recommend The Battle of Algiers." Even the Pentagon screened the film in August of 2003, advertising it with a flyer that stated forebodingly: "How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film."
Irrespective of The Battle of Algiers's newfound political salience and contemporary relevance, it is simply a superb work of visual art. Filmed in 1965, the cinematography, which employs hand-held cameras, natural light, and grainy film, is so visually arresting and looks so authentic that the film seems more like a documentary than a dramatization. The archways and rooftop lookouts of the Casbah, the city's old Muslim section, are the film's backdrop. The city's steep, narrow, labyrinth-like streets and winding staircases provide a claustrophobic setting that creates a sense of underlying tension throughout the film. Press interviews, police reports, and United Nations decisions (or rather indecisions) are incorporated into the film to give it a real-time feel of an unfolding drama that could take any drastic turn.
The dialogue of the film is in both French and a Berber dialect of Arabic, with English subtitles. Though the languages are initially distancing to the American ear, they soon prove absorbing. The two languages and their respective modulations, articulations, and tones highlight a cultural divide between the two warring camps. The film's jarring and rhythmic musical score that fuses Arab and western music complements the narrative. The acting in the movie is distinctive and impressive, not because the casting director employed the finest of cinema's movie stars, but rather because the actors are untrained. Taken off the streets of Algeria to play terrorists and their sympathizers, or brought in from France to play young, disciplined conscripts, the casts' facial expressions and voices remain steely and resolute, yet startlingly realistic. The only professional actor in the cast, the lean, attractive French Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin), who heads the counter-guerrilla operations, exudes an assured, and vibrant charisma that offers an extraordinary counterpoint to his nemesis, the reserved, yet fierce, Algerian, Ali La Point. Played by Brahim Haggiag, this steel-jawed, black-eyed young man literally taken from the streets by the director plays a brooding, illiterate street criminal who works his way up the ranks of the NLF to command a prominent leadership position.
The Algerian guerilla movement has children shoot French policemen in the back and women bomb vibrant cafés in the French district filled with young people. Repugnant though these murders are, the film shades these acts in moral ambiguity, for the cameras also show Algerians humiliated at identification checkpoints, dynamited by French forces in their homes, and interrogated brutally by the French to extract information. Ultimately, the French are successful militarily. By gaining information through torture, the French capture the leadership of the NLF, and decapitate the organization. But four years later, the country erupts in spontaneous rioting and civil disobedience that ultimately forces the French out. The last scene depicting these riots is awesomely powerful. Scores of Algerians surge in the streets, ululating and taunting the overwhelmed French troops. This looks more like a CNN live shot than a staged scene.
Though contemporary writers have been drawing parallels between the situations in Algeria and Iraq, I had the pleasure of speaking with three distinguished Harvard historians who downplayed the parallels between The Battle of Algiers and the current conflict in Iraq. If any ultimate lessons are to be learned from The Battle of Algiers, it is that the logic of military occupation is enormously complex. On the one hand, occupation produces enemies. "There is no way to occupy a country and a people without creating massive political problems," said Professor Keyysar, a professor of history and social policy at the Kennedy School of Government. But pulling out too quickly could provoke civil war, said Ernest May, an international-relations historian. Stanley Hoffman, also an IR historian, told me, "You can't fight terrorists by pounding cities to pieces."
Looking back to the consequences of the Algerian war of independence with hindsight, the glory of independence that The Battle Of Algiers portrays now seems marred in the disappointing reality of post-colonial Algeria. On the Algerian side, the war itself cost nearly 500,000 lives from a population of fewer than 9 million. The war culminated in the independence of Algeria from French colonial rule in July 1962. But after the French left, Algeria slid from a secular, nationalistic, post-colonial government, into an authoritarian, corrupt one, culminating it the civil wars of the 1990s that claimed a further 100,000 lives. At the beginning of the 21st century, neither human rights nor democracy have made substantial progress in Algeria. Considering this grim reality, one can only hope that movie-goers in forty years will not be drawing parallels between the archaic Battle of Algiers and the re-released Battle of Baghdad.
The movie contains several good perspectives on how to act and not to act in/with 'Arabic' countries. The Algeria war developped from general unease in the early 50ties. Algeria was part of France, yet local Algerians were not recognized as French citizens. On top of this came the question of landownership, as the arable land was controlled by European immigrants. Originally, the liberation movement started as a civil rights movement, not really different from the struggle of American Blacks during the sixties. Continued suppression of these, in my eyes, legitimate demands led to exacerbation and a deep division in the country, and incompatible futures arose in the minds of the people.
The movie is Italian-made, and started as a documentary during the Algeria war. However, the project couldn't be completed at that time. Two, three years after the war the film was completed in Algiers - as a re-enacted documentory, if you want. It comes very close to a true documentary film, and many critics in Europe rank Pontecorvo's as the best movie of its kind.
The main flow of the story reflects history correctly happened. Names are either real or slightly changed. (Commander "O" stands for colonel Ausseresse - I recommend to read his perspective on the war, too). The film, however, also tries to elaborate on the underlying psyche of the parties involved, which leads to a range of imaginative elements woven into the story. You always can argue, if such elements should be part of a documentory, or not. Personally, I believe true art reflects the whole story, including touching on mystic and invisible elements.
I believe "The Battle of Algier" is a fantastic movie. It combines entertainment, with a deep portrait of history and greatly reflects on people in war situation. A must for everybody who wishes to attain insight in conflicts with the 'Arab world.'
Franz L Kessler www.authorsden.com/franzkessler