There are no winners in war, only survivors. The wretched folks left in the bombed-out wreckage trying to put the pieces of their lives back together. The horrors of war leave behind scars that remain even after the wounds have healed. That is the message behind “The Battle of Algiers.” Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic film, opening this weekend at Ken Cinema, has been gloriously restored in celebration of its 50th anniversary. All of these years later, the picture still holds its transcendent power.
In 1965, French colonial rule was disappearing around the globe. They had evacuated Vietnam, and trouble was brewing in Algiers. Revolution had been fomenting since the mid-to-late fifties, and it was destined to come to a head. It did, finally, in the titular battle, where resistance to the French rule was met with surgical and total annihilation. The revolution devolved into a protracted ground war with heavy casualties on each side. Both Algerians and their French occupiers find similar, bloody fates, in a film that is both unflinching and emotionally wrenching.
Director Gillo Pontecorvo was born into a Jewish family in Pisa in 1919. He fled to France in 1938 to escape Italy’s fascist government and racially biased laws. Pontecorvo returned to Italy and led a Resistance brigade during WWII. Once peace was declared, he studied chemistry and worked as a journalist before making documentaries and growing as a director. He is seen as one of Italy’s finest auteurs. His lifetime of experience made him the perfect choice to helm this film. Real life Algerian resistance leader Saadi Yacef prodded Pontecorvo into making
the movie. Yacef did not get the propaganda piece he was most likely expecting.
Equal parts sympathetic and critical to both sides of the conflict, the drama unfolds fast enough to hold interest. The camera captures the French repression and brutal crowd control, but it also captures the rebels pushing forward with their quest for freedom, by any means necessary. The insurrection was obliterated through the leadership of the methodical, sometimes cruel, French Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin, the only professional actor in the film). He achieves victory by destabilizing the organizational structure of the resistance, piece by piece. Mathieu uses torture to get answers and names, which he uses to cut off the head of the worm and demoralize the Algerians. Like all despotic types, he wakes up a few years later to a national independence movement that comes from nowhere.
There’s a sequence where a group of Algerian women ditch their burkas, cut their hair and doll themselves up in French fashion to get through the barrier. Once inside the nightclub, mayhem reigns. Pontecorvo uses close-ups and the dizziness of the situation to drive home a point. It’s a point all-too-real in 2016. It also shows the depths people will go to in order to gain their freedom.
There is a spontaneity to the crowd shots and sequences. But they were not spontaneous at all. Pontecorvo would draw chalk lines on the ground and divide the extras into groups and had them walk on cue to get his desired crowd movement. He used multiple angles to make the gatherings look larger than they were. It’s also hailed as the first film to show Northern Africans as complete characters, not just caricatures on background scenery. The end result is a film that critics praise and recommend. They are correct, the movie is excellent.
Oddly enough, “The Battle of Algiers” is one of very few films to be nominated in non-consecutive years. It was a nominee for Best Foreign Film in 1966, and a nominee for screenplay and director in 1968. The score by Ennio Morricone replaced the original score Pontecorvo wrote himself. Like almost everything Morricone has written, it is typically brilliant.