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The Battle of Algiers

Director: Gillo Pontecorvo
Cast: Brahim Haggiag, Jean Martin

(US DVD: 9 Aug 2011)

You probably know that the Battle of Algiers is both a beautiful film and a close examination of the nature of violence. You likely even know that director Gillo Pontecorvo drew heavy inspiration from Franz Fanon’s 1961 book, The Wretched of the Earth. Perhaps you’ve even heard that both the Black Panthers and the IRA have used scenes in the film as training videos.


But I bet you didn’t know that Paul Newman was considered for the lead role.


The Criterion collection’s new Blu Ray transfer of The Battle of Algiers shows us all the grit and grime of embattled streets where children kill colonial police, informers and collaborators are machine-gunned without mercy, and the occupying French brutally torture suspected members of the National Liberation Front (FLN). Capturing a calamitous year in the struggle against French colonialism, the film succeeds in that most difficult of tasks: its both high art and one of the 20th century’s most important political statements.


Much of the continuing power of Pontecorvo’s work comes from the documentary style he adopted, combining Italian neo-realism with ‘60s cinéma vérité. This makes the film both an examination of the violence engendered by colonialism and a collection of small moments that quickly, and literally, become explosive. A quiet street is suddenly a shooting gallery. Beautiful young girls plant bombs. Even children’s play becomes ominous and finally violent. All of this shows the fingerprints of Fanon. The film followed him in arguing that colonialism created a cycle of violence and could only be truly destroyed by violence.


In an interview in the supplemental material, Pontecorvo mentions that he only expected the film to reach an arthouse audience; certainly he had no idea that it would both be widely seen and become a classic.  It succeeds by avoiding the twin temptations of being simply an aesthetic document or becoming simplistic propaganda. Rather than recounting the violence of the FLN’s struggle, the director chose to make the film as an existential encounter with the meaning of violence.


My vote for the best set piece is the planting of three bombs in a café, a dance club and the airport by young women who have used their looks and their western-style dress to slip past the checkpoint guards. Both bombers and victims are humanized in shots that register moral conflict, human sympathy and a simultaneous awareness and insensitivity to human pain and suffering. The outcome is piles of rubble, broken corpses and the coming of French Special Forces, a lethal escalation of the violence.


Criterion has, as usual, packed this collection with special features over two discs and a booklet. One of the most compelling of these features is the “Five Directors” supplement that gives us Mira Nair, Steven Sonderbergh, Julian Schnabel, Spike Lee and Oliver Stone.  In a finely tuned set of interview segments, Lee confesses that he has no idea how some of the crowd scenes are pulled off. Nair describes it as “the only film in the world I wish I had made.”


Sonderbergh notes how Pontecrovo managed to “sketch” characters that only appear for 60 seconds or so. He notes, and anyone who has seen the film would agree, that the director makes you feel like a film could be made about the bomb-maker we see for less than a minute, so much interest does the camera create by lovingly watching his movements and taking the measure of his expression and emotions.


Disc one also includes an almost hour long documentary entitled “Marxist Poetry”. This is something like the traditional “Making of” feature, very important for this film. It answers numerous questions about how Pontecorvo pulled off things like bombs going off in the busy city streets filled with actual people rather than extras. It also deals with how he managed to create such a seamless character for the film when it features really only one professional performer interacting with a cast of untrained thousands.


“Marxist Poetry” also provides us with a wealth of biographical detail on Pontecorvo, as well as material on the film’s reception. The title of the documentary actually comes from a comment from film critic Pauline Kael who admitted to loving the film while calling it “the most dangerous kind of Marxism… Marxist poetry.”


A second disc insinuates the film into history and modern geopolitics. A documentary about the Algerian struggle for independence is included, along with interviews with former French officers who served in the conflict. Especially bracing is a set of interviews with “American counterterrorism experts”. Hearing their assertions alongside a viewing of the film and the historical material is a fascinating, and disturbing, intellectual exercise, to say the least.


The Blu-Ray transfer is beautiful, confirming probably every previous experience you’ve had with Criterion’s work. If you saw the film before the 1999 restoration, you are in for a wonderful surprise. Even if you’ve seen it since, you’ll note the crispness that brings alive the streets of Algiers and, more mordantly, the scenes of violence. Blu-Ray, as many readers surely know, often seems to give black and white films a special sharpness since they already benefit from the contrast of shadow. It’s a special pleasure to know that Pontecorvo’s decision to film in black and white has stood the test of new technology.


We, of course, live in a world of checkpoint and bombings. The “Arab spring” of earlier this year (and the ruthless response) reminds us that the scars of colonialism are still present and that the path to freedom is exactly as complex as Pontecorvo showed it to be. Indeed, this is a film I wish the White House and the Joint Chiefs would sit down and spend some time with. Perhaps the United States would realize, at long last, its hubris in Iraq. The more recent use of drone bombers in Pakistan (a horror unimagined in 1966) make this film seem not dated, but more prescient in its critique of imperial pretension.


So what’s the story on Paul Newman? According to an accompanying essay by film scholar Peter Matthews, Pontecorvo had originally written a somewhat more mainstream narrative, one that would tell a story of a visiting European journalist whose sympathies shift in the course of the film to the FLN. Newman would provide a big name to bring in financial backing and get the message of the film out. Interestingly, it was members of the FLN themselves who urged Pontecorvo to write and film a very different story.


This would have been a much more comfortable film to watch had it gone in the Paul Newman direction, indeed had it decided to adopt the stance of the European who has the moral awakening. This is instead a story from the Kasbah, a story pulled out of the bloody streets. Pontecorvo, thankfully for both filmgoers and for people who care about human liberation, chose the difficult path. He did not allow the well-meaning European to control the narrative direction. He made a film that suggested that individual goodness meant less than nothing against systemic evil. The whole system was rotten, the whole system had to explode.


American liberals beware. This is not the kind of social protest film likely to sit well with you. It does not open up the possibility of reconciliation nor does it question the role of violence. It assumes violence to be central to the struggle against oppression, essential to historic movements for liberation. Pontecorvo’s film, without losing sight of the costs, suggests that the struggle of the wretched of the earth has to be as brutal as hell.  More than simply a political film of the moment, it’s a meditation on the violence of history itself.

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W. Scott Poole is a writer and an associate professor of history at the College of Charleston. He's the author of Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and Haunting (October 2011) and Vampira, a cultural biography of America's first seductive horror host forthcoming from Soft Skull Press in 2014. He's inordinately proud of his record and comics collection. His website is monstersinamerica.com. Follow him on twitter @monstersamerica.


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