Ten years before L'Avventura, with its elegantly muddled and elliptically presented relationships, Michelangelo Antonioni was working in a mode clearly influenced by Italian neorealism and American film noir, though one that gives us glimpses of the filmmaker he would become. His first feature film, Story of a Love Affair, takes place in the realms of the wealthy postwar Italian business class. A Milanese industrialist, Enrico Fontana (Ferdinando Sarmi), has come across a cache of photographs of his wife, Paola (Lucia Bosè), and hires a detective agency to find out what it can about her early life. Paola, it seems, was friends with a woman, Giovanna, who died when she fell down an elevator shaft. Giovanna had been engaged to Guido (Massimo Girotti), who, when he learns that Paola's past is the subject of an investigation, goes to see her in Milan. They are both worried that they are under suspicion of causing Giovanna's death, which they witnessed. Guido and Paola fall in love and, realizing she is trapped in her marriage to Fontana, form a plot to murder him. But before Guido can kill him, Fontana dies in an auto accident. When the police arrive to inform her of his death, Paola, fearing that she will be arrested, runs out into the night to meet Guido, who tells her of the accident and agrees to meet her the next day. But when he gets into a waiting taxi, Guido tells the driver to go to the train station. Antonioni admitted that he was influenced by James M. Cain's novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, as well as the 1946 film version directed by Tay Garnett, in creating the lovers' plot to kill Fontana, but the ironic accident is his own invention, as is the mystery surrounding Fontana's death: Although Guido, who has been lying in wait to shoot Fontana, fails in his task, he hears the crash as well as what sound like gunshots, and arrives at the scene to see the body. He later tells Paola that there was a hole in Fontana's neck, as if he had been shot. The inconclusive ending, as well as the unresolved question of whether Paola and Guido were actually responsible for Giovanna's death, foreshadow Antonioni's later enigmatic approach to narrative, as does his use of the urban landscape as a correlative to the often bleak emotional states of his characters. The film shows its age with its shallow sonic ambience, in which scenes shot both indoors and outdoors have the same resonance, a symptom of the post-sync dialogue dubbing characteristic of Italian films of the period
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?