Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Battle of Algiers

La battaglie di Algeri; war / drama, Italy / Algiers, 1966; D: Gillo Pontecorvo, S: Brahim Haggiag, Jean Martin, Saadi Yacef

The Casbah during the French occupation of Algiers in the 50s. Ali La Pointe is an Arab lad who joins the National Liberation Front (FNL), an underground organization that wants Algiers to gain independence. The FNL performs several assassinations against French soldiers and police officers, which in turns causes the French to put a bomb in an Arab neihgborhood. The FNL replies by having two women put bombs in two locals, killing a lot of French civilians. These guerilla tactics go back and forth, until the French bring in Coloniel Mathieu who starts arresting and torturing the commanders of the FNL. In the end, they manage to find La Pointe in an apartment and blow him up. However, after two years of calm, the people of Algiers start mass demonstrations - until Algiers gains independence in '62.

One of the classics of the 20th century cinema, excellent "The Battle of Algiers" is a raw, yet very energetic experience that slowly, but steadily builds up its intruige factor as time goes by. While preparing for the film adaptation of one of several decolonization events of the 20th century, the Algerian War of Independence, Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo refused to make a nationalistic epic with black-and-white characters, as was the case with "Braveheart", and instead wisely chose to make an unbiased, concise and as objective as possible portrait of the independence movement, filmming on authentic locations, employing non-professional actors who speak in French and Arabic, as well as giving room for both sides (brutalities of both sides are shown, and even the French are not shown as typical bad guys, since some of their officials themselves dennounce violence by their own troops, yet do not know how to cope with all the chaos in Algiers), which gives the movie an almost documentary feel at times.

Some scenes seem staged at times (when shot, people do not bleed but just spasmodically drop on the floor) and there is no deeper character development, since historicity is more important than the episodic characters, yet Pontecorvo still manages to compensate for these two omissions thanks to several virtuoso directed moments. One is the almost 10-minute long sequence where two Algerian women rearrange their hair and wear modern clothes to pose as French, pass a checkpoint and leave two baskets with bombs inside a cafe and a disco before leaving, after which the bombs explode and kill dozens of French civilians. When later on asked by a reporter how to justify these terrorist methods, FNL commander Ben M'Hidi gives an unforgetable quote: "If we had your war planes, it would be a lot easier for us. Gives us your bombers, gentlemen, and you can have our baskets." There are many other highly authentic sequences (the bomb explosion at the stadium during a horse race, which happens in the same shot with the actors (!); the French soldiers slapping Algerians into opening their shops to stop the FNL 8-day strike, only to later give bread to the people in order to try to win their hearts and minds...) which chronicle this 'war of atrocities', capturing some sort of an universal history lesson about the world (the strong opessing the weak; the small resisting the control of the big; the unavoidable savagery and primitivism of war; the stray means desperate use to achieve their goal...) which gives "Algiers" a timeless feel.


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