The Battle of Algiers, the epic film directed by Gillo Pontecorvo—winner of the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival in 1966—continues to haunt us with its prescience and postscripts. The film, screenplay by Gillo Pontecorvo and Franco Solinas, remains as vibrant and compelling today as when it was originally released.
The horrific murders committed in France by Mohamed Merah—a 23 year old French citizen of Algerian origin—prompted me to view the film once again. The acts of terrorism committed in 2012 seem startling reminiscent of the strife depicted in La bataille d’Alger.
As background, the Algerian War lasted from 1954 to 1962. The tactics and ideology of both the insurgents and counter-insurgents remains a pre-cursor to our present day cultural battles. Ironically, the Algerian War followed immediately in the footsteps of the French attempt to retain control of Vietnam which ended with the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954.
The Battle of Algiers is filmed as a semi-documentary in black and white accompanied by a pulsating and dramatic music score (Ennio Morricone and Gillo Pontecorvo) that anticipates the outcome of the deadly conflict. What is so stunning about the scenes is that they were filmed by Pontecorvo in the streets of the Casbah only a few short years after the end of the war. So the setting as well as the participants—Saadi Yacef (the leader of the National Liberation Front) actually plays himself—replicate, as much as possible, actual personalities, places, and events of the war.
Gillo Pontecorvo brilliantly evokes the “dictatorship of the truth,” in his attempt to establish some degree of balance in parallel scenes depicting the reciprocal brutality of both the French military and the Algerian FLN. The 10th Paratrooper Division arrives in Algiers in January, 1957 to suppress the terrorist network. The fictional figure of Colonel Mathieu, a composite of French Army officers, is brilliantly show-cased to illustrate the dilemma faced by the French government. At one point, addressing reporters covering the war, he asks for the latest news from France. “What does Paris say?” A cynical reporter answers dismissively, “Just another article by Sartre.” At which point, Colonel Mathieu poses the painfully astute, if not rhetorical question, “Why are all the Sartres born on the wrong side?”
In one of the final scenes of the film, a voice of authority challenges a crowd of demonstrators scarcely visible amidst the smoke and din. “What is it that you want?” A voice answers back, “Freedom.” Arguably so, but the Criterion Collection of the film issued in 2004 contains updated scenes with major participants decades later, including Gillo Pontecorvo’s triumphant return to the Casbah in 1992. It’s fascinating to watch Pontecorvo mixing it up with young students, male and female, observing their suspicious reactions to this hero who they initially reject with undisguised hostility until the regime puts out the “official word” that he should be treated as a “friend.” The filmed coverage reveals a mix of unvarnished conflict and deep cultural animosity that begs the question, “What is it that you (really) want?”