Film Dunce is a weekly series in which one of our writers finally succumbs to the lure of a movie that has long been a big part of our culture that they have never seen. Seen through fresh eyes, we evaluate, enjoy and sometimes get bored by these titans of mental real estate.
In my video store days, I recall seeing (but never watching) The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo’s visceral take on the 1954-1962 Algerian War of Independence, an Islamic crescent on its cover being actively chicken-boned playing out in stark polemical colors, the movie tucked among its foreign language kin in some corner of the store little bothered by the patrons. The revolutionary red and gold speak to the film’s origins as portrayal, in granular street level documentary style, of a people’s collective response in rage and acts of violence, carried out by members of the Front de Libération Nationale (led by Algerian nationals Djafar and Ali La Pointe), to the brutality of French colonial oppressors. But what the color scheme doesn’t properly communicate is how little it shies from its aims to present an honest, humanistic execution, even in relating what had been a brutal conflagration between Algerians and the French neo-colonial project. Though it tacks historical by the epilogue – the Algerian people winning their freedom from increasingly unscrupulous French administration after eight years of bloody internecine conflict – and has no qualms romanticizing that self-determinative, nationalistic struggle to at least some degree (the film having been funded by a post-French rule, independent national government in 1965 and released a year later), it also doesn’t shy from the brute facts underpinning involvement in acts of systematic terror. The result is often wrenching and intensely physical, despite the era’s technical restraints, and overwhelming humane.
Part of the arresting quality Battle of Algiers possesses is owed to the unrelenting pursuit of gritty authenticity to which Pontecorvo and Franco Solinas, his co-screenwriter, were committed. Not content with only high-contrast, deep-focus shots, crawling closes and slanted, stylized three-point arrangements, all characters except French paratroop officer Lieutenant Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin) were cast from Algiers locals and tourists selected more on the basis of their looks than their acting chops. For true accuracy, they even enlisted one of the former revolutionary leaders, Saadi Yacef, by that time a prominent figure in the new government, to play Djafar, roughly based on himself. By pairing a grim aesthetic and honest eye for detail (shards of black forms bounding across vaulted stucco walls ringing a prison courtyard, mosaic floor tiles and wrought iron in a darkened apartment, a roiling Casbah crowd, evening in a French settler’s garden) with their chosen players, the synthesis yields an uncanny spontaneity and fluidity of purpose that has been aped far more recently in films such as Children of Men and City of God. When in the opening sequence a French soldier matter-of-factly washes blood off someone he’s just concluded torturing and inquires amicably, “Couldn’t you have talked sooner? It would’ve gone easier for you,” the exchange is just surreal enough to be entirely believable. “Buck up,” he’s later told. The banality of evil extends to the banality of motivations, and so under-acting is the watchword. As in life, there is no evil in Battle of Algiers, just two distinct groups doing what they perceive to be right under the circumstances.
Although the film’s militant politics logically conclude with the necessary acceptance of utilizing violent means so long as it’s in the service of “defending” against the Other, a tactic of dehumanization ironically employed in many instances of high tension in the real world by “victim” and “aggressor” alike (in reality, both aggressors, separately self-identifying as victims), it stops well short of being an apology. On the whole, Battle of Algiers is unafraid to imbue its many passing characters with dignity sufficient enough to conclusively convey the inherent tragedy of these battles, by which innocents are almost always the most affected, just as much in a self-serious fashion as Four Lions does with levity. It could even be suggested, for instance, that this film served as a blueprint for Steven Spielberg’s Munich and that they both occupy similar conceptual space. The score is also forward-thinking, frequent Sergio Leone and Bernardo Bertolucci collaborator Ennio Morricone having provided the unnerving, contemporary-sounding compositions that alternately thrum and howl through every instance of high drama and eerie calm. It’s also clear that Battle of Algiers’ creators recognized to what extent the law of diminishing returns applies also to acts of armed insurrection when they target people and not the levers of oppression, even while the happy case of Algeria (which would itself descend into a ten-year civil war in 1992) served as a short-lived counterexample, and how a culture of pride and revenge can spiral into eternal mutual attrition. “Give us your bombers,” one of the terrorist-revolutionaries asks of the government after three agents detonate handbags filled with explosives in crowded establishments, “and we’ll give you our baskets.” Although guilt can be localized in individuals or diffused among groups, it still carries with it the potential to poison all proceedings. It’s arguable Pontecorvo and Solinas understood that, though the film’s end may not seem to say as much. Either way, even for the slightly overwrought piece of post-revolutionary quasi-propaganda it is, The Battle of Algiers hints at how cooler heads can prevail and how cults of violence can preclude any chance for mutual reconciliation. Good lessons to be learned no matter the era.