The Battle of Algiers

(Gillo Pontecorvo, Italy/Algeria, 1966): There was no shortage of anti-colonialist revolutionary theory in circulation during the 1960s, but I doubt any of it — save maybe Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth — had the viscerally inciting impact of Gillo Pontecorvo’s still-incendiary The Battle of Algiers. Scrutinized with equal — if likely disparately motivated — fascination by The Black Panthers, the Irish Republican Army and the Bush II-era Pentagon (which held a 2003 screening of Pontecorvo’s 1966 account of the mid-’50s uprising of the revolutionary FLN against French colonialist power as a cautionary manual in occupying post-Saddam Iraq), the movie remains an almost entirely unequalled exercise in full-wallop, theory-in-practice cinematic agitprop. If it has you rooting for a faction that will do anything to seize back dignity and freedom from an occupying power — including, most infamously yet still astonishingly, the bombing of public spaces occupied by teenage dancers, spooning couples and babies licking ice cream cones — even in the post ‘War on Terror’ era, you know you’re watching something that has easily transcended the moment that created it. If anything, and unlike just about anything Jean-Luc Godard made even at his most Maoist, Algiers feels as fresh, immediate and dangerous today as it ever did.

Beginning as a potential Paul Newman vehicle cooked up by two bourgeois Italian leftists — Pontecorvo and screenwriter Franco Solinas — Algiers began to take an altogether more radical and genuinely revolutionary shape when the team consulted  the former Algerian resistance fighter Salah Baazi and he offered a script by the FLN’s legendary military strategist Saadi Yacef, eventually cast in the movie as a revolutionary strategist, instead. Although Pontecorvo famously rejected Yacef’s original draft as “sickeningingly propagandistic”, it did compel he and Solinas to give their Newmanized version of the Algerian uprising — in which the blue-eyed Method Adonis would play an American journalist radicalized by witnessing the uprising — another think. So they headed to Algeria, plunged into the ethnic ghetto known as the Casbah, started talking with some of the key figures in the uprising — even Yacef would ultimately play a role in their movie — and began to come up with something entirely, and quite genuinely radically, different.

With Baazi and Yacef’s on-the-ground experience, Fanon’s socio-psychoanalytical theory of colonialism as inherently oppressive and necessitating violent resistance found dramatic form, which Solinas’ script made particularly vivid by focusing on the revolting Algerians as individual faces and the French — with the sole exception of Jean Martin as the unflappably practical military tactician Col. Mathieu, the movie’s only professional actor — as un-individuated background forces. (Presumably, this was also how the initiating concept of a Hollywood star playing a conscientious revolutionary sympathizer became unworkably apparent as just another form of re-colonialisation. Even worse, a liberal form of re-colonialisation.) This not only permitted the movie a subtle form of emotional endorsement for the FLN cause, it underscored Fanon’s formulation of violent resistance to colonial power as both practical and necessary, a critical element in Algiers‘ final and devastating critique of the French presence in the city as only being legitimately responded to with blood. In Fanon’s formulation, as it would be in the movie, violence demanded violence because colonialism itself, which cast oppressors and oppressed in irreducibly master-slave relationship, was a form of violence. If the French were largely representatives of an anonymous force of power, the Algerians were offered as people striking back in the name of their own insurgent identity.

Shooting in the labyrinthine Casbah, a byzantine warren of passages and alleys that starkly contrasted with the French zones the Algerians could only enter through heavily-armed checkpoints, with cinematographer Marcello Gatti’s often handheld camerawork generating an often intimate sense of claustrophobia and immediacy, was a decision clearly informed by the location-grounded neorealist practice of Italian neorealism (and particularly Rossellini). But Pontecorvo’s deployment of location shooting and kinetically immersive camerawork was a far cry from Rossellini’s considerably more classical framing and blocking of characters: Algiers was also so persuasively suggestive of current cinema verité documentary practice it would ultimately be perhaps the only movie to open with a title cautioning viewers that what they were about to watch was not, in fact, the real thing. Overlaying all of this with one of Ennio Morricone’s most suggestive, brilliant and ultimately subtle scores — which incorporated drum-driven indigenous musical forms as a kind of aural equivalent of propulsive historical inevitability — Pontecorvo came up with something that felt less like drama than a demonstration of political dialectics as something dangerously close to a force of nature.

Although never less than fully committed to legitimizing not only the FLN insurgence but the violence required to dislodge the colonial presence, Pontecorvo’s movie relied less on overtly propagandistic, kino-style caricature of oppositional historical forces than a sly insistence on the reality of the revolutionaries’ status as people organizing into a collective force, where the French remained a largely monolithic instrument of pure and blunt despotic management. But The Battle of Algiers was finally, and perhaps most impressively, not content to simplify anything, even its pro-revolutionary political affinities: in the form of Mathieu, the French colonial presence is less tyrannical than coldly practical, and the scale toward all out war is only prompted when the bombing of the Casbah suggests just how far the French will go to protect their political entitlement over the city, in turn precipitating the movie’s most enduringly astonishing and emotionally challenging sequence, the terrorist bombing of various public spaces in the French quarter. If this is not only the film’s stylistic tour de force and takeaway knockout sequence, it is also a measure of its commitment to depicting violence as the only reasonable option under colonial oppression. Before the blasts tear these places apart, we are provided one of our only glimpses of the French citizenry of Algiers as people (even warranting the closeups hitherto reserved for the Algerians), and they are people — families, teenagers, businessmen, mothers, babies — who are about to die for a cause made entirely just because their government has made terrorism the only option. If that was a hard one to swallow back in ’66, it’s nothing less than pure nitro in the twenty-first century. But the explosiveness, a full half century later as it was in ’66, lies less in the idea of sympathetic terrorism than contextualized terrorism: these people will, and perhaps even must, die because they represent a political system that has made it inevitable. They’ve been put on the firing line by their own state. (Criterion)

 

 

 

 

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