Genre: Historical Drama
Director: Gillo Pontecorvo
Starring: Brahim Haggiag, Jean Martin, Saadi Yacef
Duration: 121 min.
Chronicles the tumultuous Algerian struggle for independence from the occupying French in the 1950s. As violence escalates on both sides, children shoot soldiers at point-blank range, women plant bombs in cafés, and French soldiers resort to torture to break the will of the insurgents.
The Battle of Algiers is a film by Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo. It premiered at the 1966 Venice Film Festival, winning the Golden Lion for best film. The film is based on events of the Algerian war of independence against France, focusing mostly on the 1957 guerrilla campaign led by the FLN that took place in the capital city Algiers.
This film is remarkable for several reasons. Firstly, how astonishingly realistic it looks. I've read that there used to be a disclaimer at the beginning of screenings stating that none of the footage is from archives or newsreels and I can understand why. It is shot with a grainy hand held camera that seems to bring the images to life. There are multiple scenes in this picture featuring massive crowds of protestors that look exactly like something you would see on the news and Pontecorvo captures the rage and energy of these crowds with an intensity that makes it easy to forget that all of it is staged. There are other scenes showing explosions in crowded places with effects so real that I would be surprised if nobody actually got hurt while filming, and I'm sure no production could pull those sequences off today without CGI.
Also contributing to this realistic feeling are the natural performances from the entire cast of mainly non actors, with the lone professional actor being Frenchman Jean Martin who plays the role of the commander of the French paratroop force. His counterpart is young revolutionary Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), who we watch rise from a petty street criminal to become a leader of the resistance. Ali is the only character in the film to really get any development, but one look at the faces of each of the other characters is enough to tell us their stories. These are people who lived through the real events only a few short years before the film was made and Pontecorvo is able to effortlessly draw this out of them.
Another is the unusually balanced nature of the story. Though not entirely unbiased, it was after all financed by the Algerian government and there is no doubt what side the director favors, but there are no archetypical heroes and villains, just men and women on different sides. Both sides are shown committing whatever atrocities they must to win, whether that be bombing civilian cafes or torturing captured prisoners. No one's hands are clean and all of it is shown with a level of brutal detail that declares that even if one side does come out on top, it comes at an awful cost.
The other thing I noticed while watching this, is how little the world has really changed. These images and actions are still so relevant today, over 45 years later. The conditions, struggles, and tactics portrayed in this film are the same as those in our current day conflicts. It is no surprise that various revolutionary groups and even the Pentagon have used this film as a training guide for modern urban warfare.
The Battle of Algiers is a must see film, a landmark cinematic accomplishment that is quite possibly the best documentary drama ever created. One that resonates the same today as it did in 1966. Check out the recently issued Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection, for a beautiful restoration of the picture and Ennio Morricone's score.
— Bonjour Tristesse