'The Battle of Algiers'

Algiers (Algeria)EntertainmentMoviesCivil UnrestReligious ConflictsDocumentary (genre)Rebellions

You could say that the "The Battle of Algiers" is back. The great political film of the modern era has returned in a new (and newly subtitled) 35-millimeter print struck from the original negative. However, what's most impressive about this 1965 epic of revolution is the realization that its compelling imagery and its powerful insights are so continually relevant that this film isn't back, it's never really left us.

Though directed by the Italian Gillo Pontecorvo about a specific three-year period in Algeria's push for independence from France, "Battle" in fact depicts one of the paradigmatic dynamics of our time, the guerrilla struggle to get out from under what the occupied perceive to be the oppressive weight of an occupying power.

Which is why at different times in the last four decades this film has seemed to prefigure Britain's problems in Northern Ireland, Israel's in the West Bank, and now the U.S.' in Iraq, so much so that a screening was set up in the Pentagon a few months ago, advertised by the following flier:

"How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film."

Yet nothing could be more unfair than to portray Pontecorvo's film as important only because of its political stance. Nominated for three Academy Awards (including best director and best screenplay) and winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, "Battle of Algiers" was equally prescient on an aesthetic level.

The film pioneered neo-documentary techniques that have been imitated but not improved, and influenced directors from Costa-Gavras and Oliver Stone to Ken Loach and Tim Robbins, both of whom picked it in a recent Sight & Sound poll as one of the 10 best films ever made.

This despite the fact that "Battle's" determination to be the biography not of a person but a movement, to show that the hero of the struggle was the Algerian people as a whole, can sound romanticized and even naive. As Pauline Kael, who almost seemed to admire the film against her will, wrote, Pontecorvo was "the most dangerous kind of Marxist, a Marxist poet."

"Battle of Algiers" achieves its success through a combination of attitude and technique, uniting, to exceptional effect, a way of viewing the world morally while looking at it physically.

For though Pontecorvo and his screenwriter Franco Solinas do not disguise their sympathies for the insurgent Algerians, that admiration never comes at the expense of their attitude toward the French. "Battle of Algiers" is evenhanded to a remarkable extent, seeing both sides imprisoned, albeit in different ways and with different results, by the poisons of colonialism.

"Battle of Algiers" is also notable for those neo-documentary techniques, for making a theatrical feature that, for perhaps the first time, so successfully duplicated from beginning to end the look and feel of a nonfiction film that the original American distributor felt the need to add a disclaimer insisting that "not one foot of newsreel has been used" in the finished film.

This verisimilitude was not just the result of using a telephoto lens to capture tight close-ups or of Pontecorvo's unequaled mastery of crowd choreography. Persuasively shot by Marcello Gatti, "Battle of Algiers" makes it seem as if we're eavesdropping on history, catching reality on the fly.

Aided by Ennio Morricone's superb, propulsive score, the film is also able to create a sense of urgency and immediacy even though its cast is almost completely nonprofessional. It's alive to the excitement of historic events, even to the rush of French soldiers fanning out with almost symphonic precision. Everything about this film says, "It's real, it's happening now, it's important."

"The Battle of Algiers" began as a project of one of the early leaders of the rebellion, Saadi Yacef (who ended up playing a similar role in the film). Yacef apparently approached three Italian directors with leftist sympathies — Franceso Rosi, Luchino Visconti and Pontecorvo — and only Pontecorvo was agreeable. As a partisan leader during World War II, Pontecorvo brought more than sympathy and ability to the film: He was familiar, as few directors are, with the real-life dynamics of guerrilla struggles.

The film's story starts in 1957 at what looks to be a low point in the Algerian rebellion. Ali La Pointe (a smoldering Brahim Haggiag), the last of the revolt's known leaders to escape arrest, is surrounded by French troops who've been led to his hide-out by information gained through torture.

"Battle" then flashes back to 1954 and shows us how the political consciousness not only of former petty thief Ali but the entire Casbah was built up to the point that the French have to send in their elite paratroopers, led by the wonderfully steely Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin, the film's only professional actor), to cope with the situation.

Though the Algerians are the heroes, in some ways it's the thought patterns of the French occupiers, especially the colonel, that are the most interesting. Nothing if not pragmatic, the colonel articulates what the Algerians know instinctively: that political will is more important than armed men, that the French, for all their power, will inevitably end up on the wrong side of history.

The massive concluding crowd scene in which the people finally triumph is, like the celebrated sequences of Algerians being tortured to Bach chorale music, a classic moment that has not lost any of its power.

Similarly potent is the extended sequence in which three Algerian women sacrifice their hair, dress up like modern French ladies and calmly survey the people they will soon kill as they plant bombs in a trio of public places.

In some ways, today's world, which has seen the excesses of nationalism in the former Yugoslavia and understands that wars of liberation do not always lead to representative governments, seems a more complex place than the one in which "Battle of Algiers" was set. But the "smell of truth" that Pontecorvo said he was after in this film has never left it, and likely never will.

'The Battle of Algiers'MPAA rating: UnratedBrahim Haggiag...Ali La PointeJean Martin...Colonel MathieuSaadi Yacef...El-hadi JafaarSamia Kerbash...FathiaFusia El Kader...HassibaA Rialto Pictures release, in association with Janus Films and Homevision Entertainment. Director Gillo Pontecorvo. Producer Antonio Musu & Saadi Yacef. Screenplay by Franco Solinas, based on a book by Saadi Yacef. Cinematographer Marcello Gatti. Editors Mario Serandrei, Mario Morra. Music Ennio Morricone & Gillo Pontecorvo. In French and Arabic, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes.Exclusively at Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500; Landmark's Westside Pavilion Cinemas, Westside Pavilion, 10800 W. Pico Blvd., West L.A., (310) 281-8223; and Laemmle's Playhouse 7, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 844-6500.

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