The most electrifyingly timely movie playing in New York was made in 1965. Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers is famous, but for some time it’s been available only in washed-out prints with poorly translated, white-on-white subtitles. The newly translated and subtitled 35-millimeter print at Film Forum is presumably the version that was privately screened in August for military personnel by the Pentagon as a field guide to fighting terrorism. Former national-security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski volunteered this blurb: “If you want to understand what’s happening right now in Iraq, I recommend The Battle of Algiers.” I wonder if these politicos are aware that Pontecorvo’s epic was once used by the Black Panthers as a training film? In fact, not much in the current Iraq situation is historically comparable to the late-fifties Algerian struggle for independence dramatized in The Battle of Algiers, but its anatomy of terror remains unsurpassed—and, woefully, ever fresh.
The movie’s original U.S. distributor inserted the disclaimer: “Not one foot of newsreel or documentary film has been used.” That disclaimer might still be helpful to first-time viewers. The Battle of Algiers has often been compared to Potemkin as an example of incendiary, documentary-style political filmmaking. But Eisenstein’s classic was a flurry of highly theatrical techniques; there was a formality to the revolutionary chaos he unleashed, with carefully patterned crowds surging on cue. Pontecorvo’s approach is much looser and more caught-in-the-moment, although everything is carefully choreographed. What perhaps accounts for the extraordinary realism is a combination of Pontecorvo’s chief neorealist influences, Rossellini’s Open City and Paisan (the movie that inspired Pontecorvo to become a filmmaker), and his own wartime experience as an anti-Fascist partisan who commanded the Milan Resistance in 1943. The Battle of Algiers is a movie made by a director who knows (in both senses) whereof he shoots.
Co-written by Franco Solinas, who would later write Costa-Gavras’s State of Siege, the film was originally intended as a piece of agitprop for the cause of anti-colonialism. (De Gaulle pronounced Algeria an independent country in 1962, so the struggle was still fresh for audiences.) Subsidized by the Algerian government, the movie began as a sketchy screenplay written in a French prison by Saadi Yacef, the rebel leader of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN). Upon his release, Yacef approached three filmmakers: Luchino Visconti, Francesco Rosi, and Pontecorvo (demonstrating that, whatever else might be said about them, some revolutionaries have good taste in movie directors). Yacef not only became the film’s producer but also stars in it as El-hadi Jaffar, the military leader of the FLN. The existential ramifications of this casting are breathtaking: When we witness the bombings of civilians in the cafés and dance halls of Algiers’s European Quarter, or the hit-and-run assassinations of French policemen, we are seeing re-creations of what Yacef himself perpetrated. When Jaffar is trapped and about to be blown up by French paratroopers in the casbah, Yacef is acting out his own arrest. What must have been going through his head on the set?
The other rebel protagonist is Ali La Pointe, played by Brahim Haggiag, an illiterate peasant chosen by Pontecorvo for his riveting, prole-hero features. Ali—his eyes, to be exact—is the fervid center of the movie. A petty thief, he is radicalized in prison by the executions he witnesses, and recruited by the FLN upon his release. (To test his mettle, and to make sure he’s not a spy, Jaffar orders him to assassinate a French cop.) Ali is not a character, exactly; he’s the embodiment of downtrodden Muslims clamoring for liberation. Pontecorvo has a great eye for faces that carry within themselves a depth charge, and in Ali he gives us an unforgettable mask of suffering and rage. There is destiny in that acetylene glower of his; it tells us that time is on his side.
His adversary is Colonel Mathieu, played by Jean Martin—the film’s only professional actor—and modeled on General Massu, the military commander of Algeria. (Ironically, Martin, primarily a stage actor, had once been blacklisted in France for signing a manifesto against the Algerian war.) If Ali is fire, Mathieu is dry ice. He represents military efficiency at its most draconian: His lecture to his paratroopers about how to decapitate the FLN is an object lesson in the calculus of anti-terrorist warfare. When a press conference is staged with a captured FLN leader, and his words begin to stir sympathy in the room, Mathieu shuts down the show. He may represent Pontecorvo’s paradigm of colonialist thuggery, but as is so often true with movie villains, he gets the best lines. This man, who fought as a hero on the side of the Resistance and served during France’s recent defeat in Indochina, is given his due—if only to reinforce a deeper point. When Mathieu tells the reporters that they must accept the consequences of war if they want France to win, he is exposing the ugly truth behind all policing; people in power prefer not to know about the dirty work—the torture—that keeps them there.
Pontecorvo makes it clear that terrorists must also face their own moral reckoning. The strongest scene in the movie comes when three FLN women drop their veils and assume a Western look in order to infiltrate the European Quarter and plant explosives in two cafés and an Air France ticket office. We see tired businessmen at a bar, passengers waiting to board buses, teenagers dancing, and, most pointedly, a baby licking an ice cream cone—all soon to be blown to bits. Is Pontecorvo saying that these people are tragic casualties of a necessary war? Perhaps. But in the end, the horror unleashed in The Battle of Algiers cannot be fitted into neat partisan formulations, which is perhaps why so many disparate groups, from the Panthers to the Pentagon, have tried to claim the film for their own agenda. What reveals Pontecorvo as an artist, and not simply a propagandist of genius, is the sorrow he tries to stifle but that comes flooding through anyway—the sense that all sides in this conflict have lost their souls, and that all men are carrion.