The Battle of Algiers‘ meticulously calibrated brand of neorealism has been put back on display after 40 years, thanks to a re-release in a new print, solidifying the film’s place in cinema history. While the aesthetic argument hardly needed making, the story’s contemporary resonance is eerie and troubling. The 1965 film by Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo retells the violent conflict between French paratroopers and Algerian FLN rebels that ultimately liberated Algeria from colonial rule. The film is rendered with overwhelming detail and immediacy through an ambitious mixture of techniques. The unevenness and prevailing tension perfectly matching the subject matter that one can only hope will not continue to prove so timeless.
The film has an almost-documentary relationship with the events it depicts. Saadi Yacef, a previously imprisoned FLN leader, produced, acted and wrote the original script that was then scrupulously redeveloped by Pontecorvo and writer Franco Solinas and then shot on location in Algiers. The cast was entirely non-professional, including Brahim Haggiag, a real life petty criminal, playing Ali-La-Pointe. The only exception being Jean Martin who plays the French Colonel Mathieu. The result is a bewilderingly dense treatment of the conflict that has been variously used as an instruction manual by resistance groups and, more recently, as a thought piece by the Pentagon.
The casting and performances follow suit to interesting effect. The non-professional performances are uneven but sincere. Chosen principally for his look we never really doubt that Haggiag has walked these streets and knows the smell of this place. His passion and despair are somehow palpable but on account of everything except his acting which is often stiff and awkward. This contradiction becomes an extension of the film’s unlikely brand of authenticity that tersely mixes the blatantly contrived with the uncannily realistic. This is in marked contrast to more organic pseudo-documentary films. Peter Watkins’ The War Game is an example. In that film Watkins “pre-creates” a nuclear scenario in Britain complete with gruesome imagery of the ensuing fallout and has non-professionals reacting as themselves in mock interview segments. The performances are in an entirely different register than those of The Battle of Algiers. Pontecorvo’s film works because we know, despite appearances, that it is not a documentary whereas the authenticity Watkins generates is because we cannot believe the film is a fiction.
If the film’s treatment of the two sides is balanced it is not always nuanced. Any dissension amongst the paratroopers is at best implicit, as in Mathieu’s facial expressions during the FLN leaders’ captures. Conversely, any fracture amongst the rebellion or within the FLN is left untreated or resolved in an almost automatic fashion. When LaPointe disagrees with the plan to strike, he is convinced in a few short sentences and when a raging crowd storms the streets for revenge after a police bombing a single assurance that “the organization will avenge you’ sways them. This can feel a little schematic offering only the “dominant idea” of what each of these two sides were.
Where the film excels is in comparing and contrasting the two ostensibly polar opposite schemes. From the very opening scene, the film’s ambiguous attitude towards the lines that separate each side are signaled. It is initially unclear if the Arab being spoken to in the pre-credits scene is a double agent anxious about his contribution to an impending paratrooper attack or, as is the case, a prisoner who has been made to confess. The car ride that Mathieu and Jaffar share after the latter’s capture is another example. Mathieu claims relief at having avoided Jaffar’s murder, a gesture that he suggests would have been futile, and seems no happier than Jaffar at the prospect, seemingly inevitable by this point in the film, of a French military victory. Is it smug detachment or genuine ambivalence that gives the scene its almost collusive feel?
The film’s resonance with the current moment is undeniable. The suffocating military occupation, the resounding imbalance of power and the clampdown through checkpoints all call to mind the Israel/Palestine conflict. Mathieu’s whimsical choice of “champagne” to name his operation anticipates the Israeli’s more cynical use of “rainbow” in conjunction with their recent genocidal actions in the Gaza strip town of Rafah. The planet’s last colonial circumstance echoing the film’s delineation of one of history’s most notorious. It is a circumstance where every choice, the method of marriage for example, becomes a political act, a potential act of resistance and even war, as stated in an early wedding scene of two Algerians. Interestingly, it was then Israeli Prime-Minister Ben-Gurion who at one point lobbied for a two-state solution in Algeria much like the final status currently being sought for Israel/Palestine. As described, the film understands the very real dilemmas that engage colonized perpetrators of violence. The rooftop discussion between LaPointe and Ben M’Hidi in which the latter insists that terrorism alone will neither bring victory nor sustain the revolution is a case in point. The evenhanded look at these issues deserves a place within the current discussion of the Israel/Palestine conflict today.
The scenes involving the official media are positioned as simply one more aspect of military tactics. As Colonel Mathieu essentially says outright “if you write and write well, then we will win.” His imposing media control eclipses the “take-it-where-we-can-get-it” coverage the rebels are afforded. The FLN voice finds it’s way to the media only very briefly whereas when Mathieu is confronted with charges of torture the exchange lasts long enough for Mathieu to make his point, no more and certainly no less. The hyper-awareness of the “propaganda war” has parallels to the current conflict in Iraq although the media landscape today is infinitely more technological, varied and malleable. Unlike the film however, today that awareness extends to the journalists themselves. At an early discussion with the press one journalist asks Mathieu, with surprise, if he intends to “recruit them” and in other scenes the reporters are shown to be fair-minded in their probing of leaders on both sides. Compare this to the disquieting self-consciousness and near resignation to bias of the journalists we meet in Jehane Noujaim’s Control Room (2004). Noujaim’s film watches journalists from Al-Jazeera and other networks as they cover the conflict in Iraq; the reality shown is in many ways the unsettling conclusion to a tendency still only germinating in Battle of Algiers.