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.
No matter who is being destroyed, we shudder at the tenor of the events. We take little satisfaction at the “triumph” of one side or the other in the mutual slaughter. (We even pity the poor cops.) In one of the cafés we see a crowd of Europeans (French) at their drinks and a baby licking an ice cream cone. When the place is blown up we remember that child. We are outraged at the wantonness of this “senseless murder.”
We of course are equally infuriated by the French when we witness the terrible pain inflicted on the Algerian prisoners from whom their captors are determined to elicit information. The variety and ingenuity of the means employed add to the horror of the procedures We admire the cool austerity, the intelligence and soldierly self-discipline of the French colonel but we realize that he is a killer. (He points out that he was a member of the underground against the Nazis and is thus no Fascist.) We respect the terrorist leaders for their determination, courage and steely pragmatism, but they are as ruthless as the French. Even in its most violent scenes the film indulges in neither sentimentality nor delight in cruelty. It contains none of the sadism common to so many pictures presented as entertainment.
The objectivity of The Battle of Algiers is not indifference. We might conclude that the picture’s final statement is pacifist. But I doubt that that is its intention. Pacifism is an untenable position unless one is willing to die rather than to resist evil through fighting. Only the saintly are capable of such a course, and very few of us are that.
In the context of the picture alone I found myself partisan of neither side. Some in the audience equated the struggle in Algiers with the war in Vietnam. Others thought of the more violent aspects of the civil rights movement Watts, Detroit, Newark, and so on. Such analogies are misleading or false. The French had much more justification for the repression of the Algerian revolt than we have in intervening in Southeast Asia- they had been in Algeria for 130 years, had developed the country and given full rights of citizenship to the Algerians.
Is the picture “revolutionary” then, as we understood the term in the thirties? Not precisely Still what it communicates is not nebulous or indeterminate in its implications What we may gather from it politically is that ultimately no people will allow itself to be ruled by alien force. In many respects the Algerians profited from the French presence in their country and were treated better than we have treated the black man in ours. They still wanted to be free of any governing class not of their stock, language, tradition or religion.
Even this, however, is not the picture’s true import. Its content has classic and tragic dimensions beyond politics. Wars are as unreasonable as they are terrible. For it may be argued that they rarely achieve the benefits that both sides sincerely claim they are battling to bring about (Are not many now shocked at Algeria’s position in the Mideast situation?) It has been mankind’s destiny to engage in internecine conflict when in one manner or another it suffers oppression. No matter how futile the effort may prove in view of the later consequences, the world bursts into flames of anger and homicide when men can no longer bear what they consider to be unspeakable injustice. This is tragic because the actual process and conduct of these conflagrations are always and everywhere ‘inhumanly” infernal. If this is not so then all history is a meaningless shambles. How many of us truly believe this?
War and revolutions may not be inevitable. We pray and plan to avoid them but from time immemorial they have not been avoided. In that sense they are all too human. Understanding and wisdom are impossible without an initial recognition of this tragic fact. We can accept it without condemning ourselves to hopelessness, to an impotent fatalism or to a hawkish militarism
Much of this may be strongly contested. On another occasion I might contest it myself! That I should he impelled to say this now is simply evidence of the picture’s sober eloquence, its modest power. Its acting, as well as its other elements, is in the vein of a simple and direct expressiveness.
Particularly striking in this regard are Jean Martin as the French colonel dignified, hard, tempered, keen, and the two men of unalterable commitment and resolution who play the FLN leaders. (Are they professional actors?) The brave 10-year old Algerian boy who is part of the rebel equipe is also perfectly cast and directed. All in all then The Battle of Algiers is a film of which it may be said without absurdity that it is a masterpiece of epic realism.
My only demur relates to the musical score about which Poniecorvo was especially concerned and on which he is said to have collaborated. The music is not “bad”—it will not interfere with anyone’s appreciation of the picture—but in respect to the rest it is rather conventional and not stylistically consonant with the whole.