Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Short Take: The Battle of Algiers

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo’s landmark 1966 film The Battle of Algiers is many things: a fictionalized history of the Algerian War, a study of urban guerilla terrorism, and perhaps the greatest piece of anti-imperialist propaganda in all of movies. After a flashback framing sequence, the picture begins in 1954 with the radicalization of a young Algerian street criminal (Brahim Haggiag), and his recruitment by the Algerian nationalist group known as the FLN. It goes on to show the assassinations and bombings--many carried out by women and children--that target the French authorities and citizenry in Algiers. The French response, including retaliatory bombings, segregation of the city’s Arab population, and the efforts of a French military counterinsurgency, are shown as well. Pontecorvo is entirely on the side of the Algerian nationalists. The film is shamelessly manipulative at times. It dwells on the imagery most likely to inflame a viewer against the French, such as the mangled bodies of the Arab children, and the counterinsurgency’s reliance on torture. The acts of violence against the French are relatively sanitized. Pontecorvo treats them as the culmination of suspense sequences; the climaxes of these scenes evoke catharsis rather than horror. The film also has a great villain in the French colonel (Jean Martin) who leads the counterinsurgency. He’s calm, rational, and completely ruthless; one may take him as an embodiment of the banality of evil. One may have many qualms about the morality of the film’s one-sidedness, as well as its implicit endorsement of the violence of the Algerian nationalists. But there’s no denying it’s a magnificent piece of filmmaking. With this picture, Pontecorvo pioneered the pseudo-documentary cinematic style that has defined political thrillers ever since. And no director has ever handled this style better; one may find it astonishing that not a single frame of newsreel footage was used. The great black-and-white cinematography is by Marcello Gatti. The screenplay is by Pontecorvo and Franco Solinas.

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