Agitprop cinema hits a fierce apex in co-writer/director Gillo Pontecorvo’s unique wartime thriller. The audacious filmmaker blends various cinematic approaches, including Italian neo-realism, formal Hollywood, documentary, and theatrical elements. It's equal parts exploitation, propaganda, and activist cinema all wrapped up together.
The film comprises the French Army occupation of Algeria, from November 1954 to July 2, 1962 when the French gave back the Algerian Nation’s independence. Filmed in gritty black-and-whte, the picture was was shot on location in Algeria’s Casbah district, a walled-in landscape of never ending stairways that evinces the Casbah’s English translation, a fortress (citadel).
This film’s boiling wartime narrative gives equal screentime to both sides of the Algerian resistance effort to overthrow their French Colonial Government military occupiers, circa 1957. Still, you could hardly call the film politically neutral. It is based, however loosely, on Saadi Yacif’s “Souvenirs de la Bataille d’Alger,” Yacef’s memoir of his time spent as a tortured prisoner of the French. Anacdotal experience breathes through every scene.
Ali la Pointe (Brahim Haggiag) leads the Arab terrorist efforts of a small group of FLN (National Liberation Front) revolutionaries as they battle against the French military. Jean Martin, a real-life former French Resistance fighter plays Lieutenant Colonel Mathieu, a composite character that leads his brigade of paratroopers to “cut off the head of the snake” (referring to Ali la Pointe specifically). Jean Martin had been unceremoniously fired years earlier from France’s Theatre National Populaire for signing the “Manifesto of the 121,” an open letter signed by 121 intellectuals and published in 1960, calling on the French government to “recognize the Algerian War as a legitimate struggle for independence."
French soldiers ruthlessly torture their Arab prisoners, while Muslim freedom fighters plant bombs in public places that kill and maim many innocent civilians. Both sides are brutal murderers. But they cannot exist without one another. In showing the human traits of soldiers on both sides of the battle, Pontecorvo achieves something bigger than the complex material at hand. Culture shock is here.
Pontecorvo cast non-professional actors. He used the real leader of the Algerian revolutionaries (Yacef Saadi) to play himself in the film. When a French officer tortures a shirtless Muslim man by aiming a blow torch at the flesh on the prisoner’s stomach, the tone of the film spikes with the unspeakable cruelty on display.
Cinematographer Marcello Gatti combines techniques involving everything from Dutch angles to nimble camera movement to give the audience an urgent sense of tension at the time of the wartime human crisis.
The filmmaker’s startling use of soundscape shifts between atmospheric silences to conventional musical cues (enunciated with strong rhythmic motifs) gives the viewer an expanded sense of the film’s social and political reality.
Gillo Pontecorvo’s newsreel styled imagery led the film to be released with a disclaimer that “not one foot” of newsreel was used, as if newsreel footage were necessarily more reliable than any other source of edited filmic imagery.
“The Battle Of Algiers,” which was banned in France for five years, shows the French winning the battle but losing the war in Algeria. The film is a reminder that the imperialist actions of politicians and military commanders obsessed with greed and power will always result in violent backlashes that claim the lives of civilians.
Not Rated. 121 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)