Laura Clifford Robin Clifford'Give us your bombers and we will give you our baskets'
Algerian FLN commander Ben M'Hidi
An occupation by a NATO endorsed, Western power. Freedom fighters tortured for information about their organization. Rebels engaging in terrorism in order for their voices to be heard. Women and children using their implied innocence as a cover to deliver death to their oppressors. Vietnam? Northern Ireland? Palestine? Iraq? Unfortunately, the sad reality is history repeating itself and lessons still being learned today from Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo's highly influential account of "The Battle of Algiers."
A wizened man is tortured until he divulges the location of Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), the last Algerian FLN leader hidden in the Casbah. Relieved French soldiers pat him on the back, offer him a cigarette and disguise him as one of their own before marching with Col. Mathieu (Jean Martin, "Lucie Aubrac," the film's only professional actor) to smoke the enemy out. Threatened with bombing, Ali and three stalwart compatriots remain hidden behind a wall and a young expectant bride weeps as her husband is lost in a cloud of rubble. It's 1957 and the French have won, but only for the time being. Pontecorvo returns to 1954 and, with startling immediacy, breaks a complex situation down to the proven, repeatable elements of a repressed people fighting for their freedom and the oppressors' tactics to dominate. The filmmaker makes no judgement, although humanity's inherent tendency to side with the subjugated may give that appearance.
Ali is a petty street hustler whose imprisonment by French police breeds a rebel when he witnesses the barbaric guillotine execution of an innocent Algerian from his courtyard facing cell window. The newly impassioned young man is recruited by Djafar (real life National Liberation Front general Yacef Saadi, on whose book the film is based) on the advice of wily street kid Omar (Mohamed Ben Kassen). In retaliation for the killing of a French policeman, a bomb is set off in the Arab quarter, but Djafar sends Omar to Ali to stop the resulting street demonstration before the French army slaughters the protesters. Djafar is also concerned about giving the French the face of their enemy. Instead, three Muslim women Westernize themselves and manage to slip through the guard at the Arab quarter border (shades of Belfast and Jewish ghettos) to plant bombs in clubs and cafes in the European section. The women all accomplish their mission, even after sadly taking in the faces of their innocent targets - these scenes are chilling.
After proving Hitchcock's old adage that to create suspense, one must show the bomb, Pontecorvo uses police thriller conventions - the rolled-up shirtsleeved Captain pacing around his desk - to convey mounting statistics. Col. Mathieu and his paratroopers march into the city and he begins teaching methods to stamp out resistance (use interrogation, create a reason for intervention if none are provided) while coaxing the media to his side. We learn that the FLN is a pyramid organization with each member only knowing three others - the one who brought in him and the two he has recruited. Mathieu is a soldier with a job to do who expresses frustration with the epithets ascribed to him and his troops. 'Why are the Satres always born on the other side?' Mathieu mutters when the press tell him what's being reported in France.
Except for a few minor nitpicks (Little Omar doesn't seem to age in three years, shootings are bloodless), "The Battle of Algiers" does not show its age. This is gripping, relevant cinema. It's influence can be seen in many films that followed it. The recent Irish film, "Bloody Sunday," borrowed its entire structure from "Algiers." Marcello Gatti's high contrast black and white photography feels like a newsreel when he shoots in the streets and a documentary when he follows character-based action. The score, by Ennio Morricone ("The Good, the Bad and the Ugly") and Pontecorvo drives the action with horns and military marching drums, but also adds lyrical melancholy with flutes used during a wedding scene. Pontecorvo elicits strong performances from his nonprofessional cast. People who are little more than extras stir the emotions as evidenced in an early scene where a mistakenly accused, terrified older man runs down a street as the Europeans who live in his native city shout 'dirty Arab' from their windows.
"The Battle of Algiers" was the winner of the Golden Lion at the 1965 Venice Film Festival in addition to being Oscar nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director and Best Screenplay. The new 35mm prints being rereleased into theaters contain footage frequently cut from television airings as well as new subtitles which more accurately translate the French and Arabic dialogue.
Robin did not see the rerelease of this film.
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