A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966)

Jean Martin in The Battle of Algiers
It's a truth as old as fable, as ingrained as myth: Our sympathies go out to the oppressed, the underdog. Which is why the attempt to find "impartiality" or "objectivity" in a docudrama like Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers -- or to criticize the film for lacking it -- is so futile. It's a truth that even nations need to learn: When, for example, Israel ceased to be the underdog in the Middle East, the sympathies were bound to shift to the Palestinians. It's also a lesson that demagogues unfortunately do tend to learn: Make your followers believe that they're the oppressed, the victims of some other group, then you can lead them by the nose in the direction you prefer. (If you think I'm hinting at something about the current U.S. president, you're right.) In any case, what makes The Battle of Algiers so potent, so continually relevant is that director Pontecorvo and his co-screenwriter Franco Solinas are so meticulous in their portrayal of a dynamic: that of oppressed and oppressor. Never mind that the techniques of both sides are so frequently heinous: We cringe when the Arabs send women out to plant bombs that kill innocent noncombatants, just as we flinch from the sight of French soldiers torturing suspects. What matters here is the pattern of action and reaction. What matters with The Battle of Algiers is not so much the brilliance of its filmmaking -- its artful use of non-actors like Brahim Hadjhadj, who plays Ali La Pointe, and actual NLF commander Yacef Saadi, as Djafar, or little-known professionals like Jean Martin, as Col. Mathieu; its powerful restaging of events in the places where they occurred; the cinematography of Marcello Gatti; the smartly used score by Ennio Morricone -- as the film's ability to trace the dynamic of a particular event, a dynamic that continues to underlie events as they unfold in Syria, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, perhaps in the United States itself. Is there another 50-year-old film that remains as essential to our understanding of the way the world works?

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