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Monday, November 21, 2011

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The Battle of Algiers( 1967 )


Perhaps no other cinematic depiction of revolt against colonial rule is so detailed, vivid, and specific as the 1965 Battle of Algiers (La battaglia di Algeri, just reissued in a new print and having limited distribution in the US). It's a vivid and very specific recreation of the insurrection against the French in Algiers in the late Fifties that shows how the French systematically eradicated that insurrection. It's also a story repeated with variations in dozens of parts of the globe now, as then. But as I'm not the first to note, it's neither a partisan tract nor a user manual. It was therefore foolish of the Pentagon to watch it recently as if tips on how to control Iraqi `resistance'/'terrorism' were to be found in it, and it has been equally foolish of the Black Panthers or other revolutionaries to watch it seeking tactical information for their struggles. Those tactics did not succeed; but neither did the effort to quell the independence movement: the French won the battle but lost the war. A process that might have proceeded peacefully in a matter of months, takes years to happen. The film documents the sad foolishness of solving conflicts with violence, the maximum loss and suffering on both sides and the protraction of the inevitable outcome.


The insurrection The Battle of Algiers describes was effectively quelled through the leadership of the bold, methodical French Colonel Mathieu, who as we see succeeds in eliminating the organizational structure of the resistance, `triangle' by `triangle', using torture to ferret out names and locations of the autonomous `terrorists'/'partisans,' then killing the `head' of the `worm' their structure represents so it can't `regenerate.' Once this happens, after a merciless French campaign following a general strike, the sympathizers in the majority Algerian population are totally demoralized; but two years later a vigorous national independence movement `suddenly,' `spontaneously,' springs forth, and not long afterward France has to grant Algerian independence. It's at this point, rather than at the moment of Mathieu's momentary triumph, that the film ends.

Gillo Pontecorvo undertook his masterpiece after prodding from the resistance leader, Saadi Yacef, but he made a film equally sympathetic toward and critical of both sides. We see as much of the French dissection of the situation and repression of it (by the police chief, then Colonel Mathieu) as we see of the `terrorists'/'partisans' planning and execution of their actions. We see Colonel Mathieu as an appealing macho hero with moments of noble fair play, a shades-wearing, cigarette puffing veteran who moves around with clarity, honesty, and panache; he himself has a `partisan' background. The `terrorist'/'rebel' leaders are serious, intensely committed men of various types, from the sophisticated intellectual to the young firebrand. There are no `heroes' here; or, alternately, if you like, they're all `heroes.'

Mathieu appears before the press beside the captured `rebel'/'terrorist' leader - an unusual move in itself - and expresses his respect for the man's courage and conviction. The `rebel' leader in this scene is eloquent in defending `terrorist'/'rebellion' methods such as the use of baskets filled with explosives in public places. `Give us your bombs and we'll give you our baskets.' Mathieu for his part effectively explains to the journalists the necessity of torture to short circuit the `rebellion'/'terrorism'. After this explanation, the film, typically systematic at this point, begins showing a series of tortures of Algerians being carried out.

The first image we see in the film is the shattered face and body of the small, tortured Algerian man who's broken down and revealed where Ali `La Pointe,' the firebrand, the last remaining leader, is hiding. Then we see the `terrorist'/'terrorist' leader Ali and his closest supporters trapped like deer in their hideaway, their faces soft and beautiful. The splendid black and white photography works like William Klein's Fifties and Sixties images (he's one of the key visual commentators of that period stylistically) to powerfully capture the edgy soulfulness of the North African people and their gritty Casbah milieu. Much of the film's power comes from the way Pontecorvo was able to work, through Saadi Yacef, directly in the Casbah among the real people - as Fernando Meirelles worked in the favelas of Brazil recently with local boys to forge the astonishing City of God.

The voices, which are dubbed, as was the fixed Italian filmmaking style, work somewhat less effectively because of obvious disconnects between mouth and sound at times, but the French is so analytical and the Algerians' Arabic so exotic-sounding (even to a student of Arabic) that they work, and the insistent, exciting music composed by Pontecorvo himself in collaboration with Ennio Morricone is a powerful element in the film's relentless forward movement.

The fast rhythms of the editing are balanced by the stunning authenticity of the hundreds of Algerian extras who swarm across the screen: it's in the crowd scenes that The Battle of Algiers really sings. There are many superb sequences of street fighting, of people massing at checkpoints, of the French victims innocently assembled in public places; and like an exhilarating coda there is the scene of joyous victory as Algerians celebrate their independence in the last blurry moments. This is a film (again, like City of God) of almost intoxicating -- and nauseating -- violence, complexity, and fervor. Pontecorvo's accomplishment, though, is the way through showing the leaders analyzing and debating the action he freezes any impulse toward partisanship in its tracks. The evenhandedness of the coverage works a Brechtian `Alienation Effect' so you don't get caught up in rooting for one side or the other.

The sequence of three pretty Algerian women carrying out an operation is a particularly memorable one -- but only one among many. First they take off their burqas and cut their hair and doll themselves up French style and then they get past the checkpoint into the French quarter to leave handbags full of explosives in a bar, a dance club, and an airport lounge. Again close-ups of faces in the bar and the jive dancers with jaunty jabbing elbows in the club show a brilliant use of image and classic editing: first the innocent, vulnerable faces, then the explosions. Here our sympathies for the French victims are fully awakened. Another sequence of Algerians removing bodies from a building has all the power and sadness of Christ's Passion.

There's no point where as in a conventional thriller we feel excitement and sympathy for the perpetrator, because we see the cruelty of the perpetrator and the humanity of the victim every time. The Battle of Algiers is a final triumphant use of Italian cinematic neorealismo. The killing is observed neutrally, but with sadness, as part of a stupid game caused by ignorance and played out compulsively when a political settlement would have been infinitely better - a stupid game observed with astonishing zest.

Revived thirty-five years later in a new 35-mm. print, its grainy beauty pristinely vivid, The Battle of Algiers remains a superbly made machine that plays out the addictive game of `terrorism,' repression, torture, revolt, and full-fledged insurrection as effectively now as when it was first issued. Like any classic, it's of its time and of all time. There's a lesson here, but it's not for partisans or colonialists: it's for all people.

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