The Battle of Algiers - A Unbiased Historical Masterpiece

                        A Muslim country boiling with discontent. A European occupying force uses strong-arm tactics to clear out a rebel army. Women plant bombs, children shoot soldiers, and tanks are out on the streets. This is not a post-9/11 situation in a Middle-East country. This is Algiers in the mid-1950s. Gillo Pontecorvo's 1965 classic "The Battle of Algiers," is an electrifying masterwork, that once inspired revolutionaries.

                        Even though it's been 46 years since the film's release, Battle of Algiers remains as relevant as ever. During the Iraq situation, pentagon officials watched the film for tips. It was said that the flier for a private screening read: "How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas." Even though its a black-and-white movie, it is still powerful, and its anatomy of terror remains unsurpassed.

                       The movie has been shot in a documentary-style. It accounts the violent uprising of Algeria's National Liberation Front in the 1950s, and the bloody French Army's countermeasures. For film-students, 'Battle of Algiers' remains like a course in how to work on viewers' emotions. The movie was commissioned by the revolutionary government, made by a member of Italy's Communist Party, and the cast almost consist of nonprofessional actors (many of whom had fought the actual battles represented onscreen). Designed  as a work of propaganda for conveying the revolution's ideals, Battle of Algiers also remains chillingly authentic.

                     The movie opens in 1957, as a anguished Arab prisoner informs against Ali la Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), the last surviving member of the National Liberation Front (FLN). Ali, trapped behind a fake wall in his old apartment is cornered by French forces under the command of the relentless Col. Mathieu (Jean Martin, the only professional actor in the cast). In flashbacks, the movie documents the rise of Ali from petty criminal to committed insurrectionist working with the charismatic revolutionary El-hadi Jaffar (Saadi Yacef).The  cells were finally annihilated by the paratroopers in 1957 ,and all was quiet until the revolution is sparked again in 1960.

                     Has any movie ever squeezed you into the shoes of grassroots combatants fighting a monstrous colonialist power for the right to their own neighborhoods? If no, then this is the movie you should watch. As a viewer, we follow both faces of the combat—the uprising natives and the merciless if disconcerted French army—from 1954's initiation of the rebellion to the official French victory, in 1957, over the National Liberation Front. 

                   Director Gillo Pontecorvo avoids the melodramatics of a war film by presenting the victims of both the bomb blasts and the reprisals as genuine innocents rather than the faceless casualties of a revolutionary or imperialist cause. His condemnation and convictions are not devoid of compassion. Even though its clear, whose side Pontecorvo is on, the impression left in the end is of a balanced one rather than bias. Ali is no more a savior or a hero than the Colonel Mathieu is a hate figure. Though the term 'docudrama' was not  invented when Pontecorvo directed the movie, the ideas for the plot were jotted down by an FLN chief, Saadi Yacef, who served time in a French prison. He co-produced the picture and played the character of El-hadi Jaffar. Saadi also wrote the memoirs on which co-writer Franco Solinas and Pontecorvo based their script.

                  The casting is realistic and ingenious. The central character Ali played by Brahim Haggiag is an illiterate peasant, who was picked from the crowd by the director. His riveting worker-like features and his eyes are the fervid center of the movie. Ali's adversary Colonel Mathieu, played by Jean Martin is a standout from the crowd as the lone French antagonist. He was primarily, a stage actor, who had once been blacklisted in France for signing a manifesto against the Algerian war. Martin exemplifies military efficiency at the most harsh manner. In one scene, When Martin tells the reporters that they must accept the consequences of war if they want France to win, the character of Martin is exposing the ugly truth behind all policing; people in power prefer not to know about the dirty work—the torture—that keeps them there.

                  The grandness of "The Battle of Algiers" lies in its ability to embrace moral ambiguity without ever succumbing to it. Although the movie was advertised for its realistic feel, the carefully composed shots, and their gestural grace proves the movie's visual artistry. It might take endless pain to look this spontaneous and artistic, as directors from Steven Soderbergh (Che), Ken Loach (Land And Freedom) to Anurag Kashyap (Black Friday) -- few of the myriad filmmakers influenced by "The Battle of Algiers"-- would tell you.

                   The Battle of Algiers raises many questions, and it deserves a study as similar issues still perplex the world. Are human rights unnecessary as long as the word "terror" is invoked often enough by authorities? or Is terrorism a lawful tool when the more sophisticated government or democracy are beyond our reach? Watch this powerful resonant movie to contemplate more crucial questions.


Battle of Algiers - IMDb


vinay said...

Each time I visit your blog, I have to doubt my claim about being a film buff. :P
Thanks for the info. :) :)

Haricharan Pudipeddi said...

Great post buddy.Brilliant film I've been thinking of watching. Will watch it soon and come back with a comment :)

quetzalcoatl said...

There may be other films dealing with such issues, but as you have pointed out, it is the unbiased nature that makes Battle of Algiers the definitive film on this issue...

Most other films are from the white man's POV... although in recent times filmmakers like Rachid Bouchareb have provided the story from the other side...

Arun Kumar said...

@Vinay, Thanks for the comment, and give your opinion, once you have watched the movie.

@Haricharan, Thanks for the comment.

@quezalcoatl, Thank you. unbiased and have mastered the art of film-making, unlike other movies. Will check out the works of Rachid too

Rajnish said...

Great post. I wanted to watch this movie since a long time. Will surely watch it after reading your informative post. Thanks

Arun Kumar said...

@Rajnish, Thanks for the comment, and also give your opinion on the movie, once you have watched it.