Gillo Pontecorvo’s realistic recreation of Algeria’s struggle for independence against France remains one of the most influential political films ever made.
Innocent that I am, I enjoyed every one of the seven features I saw during the first week of the Fifth New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center. When I say that, I am not necessarily recommending them as good pictures. Some of them have glaring flaws: in some cases, a strained archness or an allusiveness bordering on the unintelligible. Nor am I particularly interested in technical devices (“pure cinematics”) which preoccupy the true movie buff.
What I appreciated most of all was the relevance of virtually all the exhibits to the worlds which produced them. They are much more expressions of our day than most of the plays we see in the theatre.
We expected the festival to begin with “experiment”, it began with excellence The Battle of Algiers is a first-rate picture. From the specialist’s point of view this film—the work of a 35-year-old Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo—is remarkable for being an entirely convincing “documentary” of which not one foot is composed of stock shots or newsreel material Yet one finds that one is there in the midst of the moment. A sense of the actual is never compromised by the taint of contrivance for effect. An expert may also admire the organizational capacity the picture demonstrates. In appearance and movement, the crowd scenes convey reality more strikingly than do the techniques of cinéma vérité.
The Battle of Algiers creates the impression of total objectivity. Folks with a particular political bias will contradict this (A Parisian journalist told me that the picture was under official ban in France and that the Algerians had contributed not only their land but funds to the film’s making.) The film may be “read” in various ways according to one’s sentiments and convictions without our being oppressed by a feeling that a prejudiced view is being foisted upon us. Yet a specific emotion is communicated: the film is saying something. It embodies an idea without engaging in argument or special pleading.
The picture mirrors events in the Algerian uprising against French dominance of their country. At first we witness incidents in the terrorist campaign initiated by members of one cell of the National Liberation Front (the FLN). We are shown parts of the French counter-terror — bombings, etc. The Algerians kilt a number of the French-European policemen; the French retaliate with even greater ferocity. The Algerians then blow up several cafes and an air terminal largely frequented by the Europeans.
The French army formally intervenes through a paratroop division headed by a Colonel Mathieu With quiet and deadly efficiency he rounds up the leaders of one of the most active of the terrorist units Though the army code does not contain the word, torture is resorted to. When the last of the terrorists is trapped (along with his aides) the group is liquidated: the FLN rebellion is quelled. All this happens in 1954. After two years of “peace,” massive and apparently spontaneous street rioting breaks out. The struggle takes on wider scope. We know the end: in 1960 the Algerians gain independence.