Catching Up: The Battle of Algiers

We all have gaps in our cinematic knowledge, films which, if we confess our ignorance of, someone, somewhere will say, “How have you not seen that?!” Catching Up is about these films, and viewing them so long after seemingly everyone else has. Some of these entries may be shocking, some are embarrassing, but all of them are classics.

The Film:

Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, originally released in 1966 in Italy, 1967 in America, and 1971 in France. A reconstruction of the real events that occurred during the first three years of the Algerian War of Independence.

Wait, you really haven’t seen this?

Nup. This one doesn’t seem terribly well-known outside the circles of die-hard cineastes. Which is a shame. Criterion just re-released it on Blu-Ray. Pick it up.

The Legacy:

Nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (and lost to a French film, ironies of ironies). Won the Golden Lion at the Berlin Film Festival. Occupant of multiple “best of” lists.

But really, this movie’s biggest influence is felt in the political sphere. It’s practically the Che Guevara of movies. It’s proved an inspiration for numerous resistance and terrorist groups, and has been shown as a teaching tool in The Pentagon.

What did you know about it beforehand?

I knew it was about the Algerian revolution. I was actually under the impression that it was a French film (it’s Italian/Algerian), but that was misguided (even in the political upheavals of the sixties, it was unlikely that a film like this could get successfully made in France). I heard mutterings of its documentary-like realism, but really had no idea what to expect. I’d owned the Criterion Blu for a while, but didn’t see it for the first time until it came to the big screen at a repertory theater. It was worth the wait.

So, did it live up to the hype?

See. This. Movie. Now.

There are films that feel contemporary despite being decades old, but that description is too mild for something like The Battle of Algiers. It could have been shot yesterday. There is absolutely nothing about this movie’s depiction of occupation, resistance, imperialism, terrorism, political violence, or social upheaval that isn’t still blisteringly relevant. This is 1950’s Algeria, but it could easily be today’s Egypt or Tunisia or Libya or Syria or, well, Algeria again. The challenges facing the French military in this film are exactly the same as those our own military faced in Iraq, what they continue to face in Afghanistan. This is what happens when people rise up against oppression.

Part of the immediacy stems from the style. Gillo Pontecorvo took Italian Neorealism and cranked it full of Fritz Fanon and torture drugs. Actual members of the Algerian resistance, the FLN, helped with the script. Hell, FLN leader Saadi Yacef not only produced the film, but played a character based on himself! In fact, with the exception of the leader of the French counter-insurgency, all the roles in the movie are played by non-professional actors. And it’s a cast of thousands – real Algerians, all of whom had actually lived through the events that they are acting out, are replaying those same events. It makes for an epic that’s recklessly chaotic but tightly controlled in tone.

Pontecorvo had directed documentaries before, and applied that on-the-street point of view to his eye here. The film consists entirely of original footage, but there are several faux newsreels, and they’re completely convincing. The camera is rarely in one place for very long, and seldom content to sit still. It bobs and weaves around people, and moves in close and personal when it needs to. There’s an unbelievable energy in this movie. Watching it gives the same feeling you get watching an escalating political protest, the kind you want so badly to run out and join. It has a raw edge that doesn’t seem to fit within the mid-sixties, as well. People die, and they die badly. There are explosions seemingly every other minute. There’s not a drip of gore in it, but this movie feels more violent than any modern-day war movie.

This is the power of insurgency, and it cannot be contained, only channeled. Pontecorvo accomplishes this through masterful editing. The movie jumps from one event to another at a breakneck pace. Multiple scenes cut rapidly between disparate actions that take place simultaneously, such as an amazing scene in which three different women separately place bombs in cafes. And yet it’s all completely comprehensible. The story never loses track of its dozens of characters, nor where they are during this three-year span of time.

What stands out more vividly than anything else is how much the city of Algiers itself is a character in the story, especially the Casbah. A dizzying maze of interconnected, homes, mosques, and markets, the Casbah was a natural shelter for the resistance forces. Pontecorvo makes the architecture sing with the thrum of constant, frenzied activity. Citizens bustle about and FLN members call out warnings and signals to one another. I’d call it a beehive, except beehives are way simpler to understand than this labyrinthine mini-city.

But above all else, the movie’s greatest accomplishment is this: it truly conveys the total ugliness of its situation. In wars like this, there might be a “right” side and a “wrong” side, but calling either side “good” or “evil” feels wrong. The French are foreign occupiers, and they suppress the rights of the Algerians, kill enemies and civilians indiscriminately, and resort to torture and cowardly bombing tactics. But the FLN bomb many, many innocents, and outright murder their political rivals. This is not a romanticization of revolution; revolution is never pretty. The moral high ground is a zero sum game here.  The only winning move is not to play, but it’s too late for that. If there’s an answer, it’s that Imperialism is a horrifically destructive, dehumanizing practice.

And yet, despite these horrors of conflict, the characters themselves are all fully fleshed out as complex people. Given the nature of the narrative, many of the resistance members sometimes seem to blend into one another, and that’s probably fully intentional. After all, that’s the ideal in these kinds of movements – that the individuals serve the greater whole. One who stands out is Ali la Pointe, played by Brahim Haggiag, who starts the story as a common criminal and ends it as a martyr. He starts out as a thug, finds direction and inspiration through radicalization, and slowly comes into his own as a leader. It’s an astonishing transformation on Haggiag’s part, and it’s symbolic of what Algeria itself went through during those years.

The French won the titular Battle of Algiers, but they were forced out of Algeria a few years later, and their empire eventually fell apart. The movie ends with that victory that precipitated defeat, and that, like everything else about it, is purposeful. In the short term, figureheads of revolution are cut off, but true revolutions do not work like a snake. They are a hydra, which only grows more heads the more you hack away at them. The Battle of Algiers is a testament to the power of a people working in their native element. The heel of the jackboot cannot grind that out, no matter how hard it presses down. And that’s a comforting thought, no matter how dirty things get in the meantime.

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