If there was ever a film that truly brought its viewers into the midst of the drama, it is Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1965, The Battle of Algiers. Classified as a drama documentary—and often associated with Italian neorealism cinema—The Battle of Algiers uses black and white newsreel style photography, making it quintessential realism. Action packed throughout, keeping suspense even during calm moments, the film depicts Algiers’ nationalist resistance of French colonialism in the truest of fashions. It may be fictional, but it appears as close as it could get to showing what truly occurred. The urban guerilla warfare that is employed sparks complete unrest—at any moment someone could strike—a disturbing reality. It is that chilling pervasiveness that makes this film so timeless, as history tends to repeat itself, and the gritty truths displayed in the picture are still occurring in places around the world today.
Without a foot of library footage, the accuracy displayed in the film is incredible. Only one actor is casted—Jean Martin as Colonel Mathieu—while the rest are locals of Algiers, including the major role of Ali La Pointe, played by Brahim Haggiag. It is Ali—an illiterate petty thief with a face that is forever imprinted into the viewer’s mind—who is the key player in the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) resistance, after witnessing a man’s beheading in prison. Ali’s eyes dominate the frame as he peers out his prison bars at a man who is carried away to a guillotine by men in all black: it was clear what would follow. This seems to be the breaking point for Ali, as he then joins the FLN after his release from prison and takes on the role of El-hadi Jaffar’s right hand man. Saadi Yacef—who actually helped Pontecorvo produce the film and was a real leader of the FLN—plays Jaffar, with some parts of the film being recreations of his past.
The film doesn’t hesitate with the dramatic truth, as the establishing shot is a half-naked man who is trembling after he has been tortured and finally gives up the location of Ali, the remaining figure of the FLN. This opening sequence warns of the brutality the audience must partake in. Hiding behind a wall, we first see the faces of Ali and three others who are asked to surrender before the film transitions into a recollection of Ali and the fight that the FLN has held against French rule. Pontecorvo is able to show the nationalist uprising of Algiers in an utterly compelling display. Shot on location, with handheld cameras and wide or opened lens that follow the action, it as if we, the audience, are peaking into a moment in time—everything is fluid. The film has huge set ups, with wide shots of hundreds of people out on top of their roofs in the Casbah, and birds eye views of the city amidst chaos and agitation; it is mind-boggling that Pontecorvo was able to direct such scenes. At the same time, these are the staples of the film, which made it necessary to add the disclaimer that “not even one foot of newsreel or documentary film is included in this picture.”
Tragedy is shown throughout the picture, and Pontecorvo does well at maintaining some balance—though it is clear he favors Algiers. The film score by Ennio Morricone accommodates the loss of life, as an organ plays an unnerving tune. The FLN strikes with guerilla tactics, as the French police are shot down in broad daylight, one by one. Next the police bomb the Casbah, where we see young men being pulled from the rubble as women cry out for justice. The retaliation from Algiers occurs when three women arm their purses with bombs and hit their desired targets—faces of European civilians are shown; we observe the innocence. Pontecorvo’s ability to capture anxiety and compassion really play hand-in-hand with the films power. As we are shown quick cuts of the clock ticking away; a child eating ice cream; men and women dining; teenagers dancing, there is a moment of sympathy: all life is equal.
Jean Martin, or Colonel Mathieu, commander of the French paratroopers who are assigned to combat the FLN resistance, has some of the best lines in the film, which really speak to the ideology behind the picture: “Should we remain in Algeria? If you answer ‘yes,’ then you must accept all the necessary consequences.” Accepting all of the necessary consequences involves torture and loss of life. It is a harsh reality, but put in the most simplest terms: War is never pretty. It is also understood that “acts of violence don’t win wars” as Ben M’hidi, a top FLN leader, notes to Ali. Both sides know the circumstances.
The Battle of Algiers combines art and politics to create an incredibly moving film. It is one for the ages, with an impact that will never diminish. Viewing the film in 2016, the footage could still seem like it is news clips from the Middle East. Pontecorvo was in the upper echelon of realism, with the final sequence seeming impossible to create with extras. The tension and chaos that unravels with the “unintelligible and frightening rhythmic cries” is brilliant directing – unsurpassed and never duplicated. The film brings a voice to the people who knew this type of life all too well, making for nothing ever seeming staged; it was naturalistic—a deep pride for Algeria.