I recently watched Gillo Pontecorvo's movie La Battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers, 1965). I've had a few weeks to reflect on it, and it really is one of the masterpieces of twentieth century film. A violent and disturbing film, it was banned in France, and it apparently gave such a detailed and accurate view of how terrorism works that it was shown to a special audience at the Pentagon to help military personnel understand what they'd be up against in Iraq (NYTimes, September 7, 2003). The most striking thing about the film, however, is it's neutrality. Although it was made partly under the auspices of the Algerian government, within a few years of the events it portrayed, the film was shot in a strikingly non-partisan manner. The film is often thought to side with the Algerian revolutionaries, but I think this is effectively undercut by other aspects of the film, and although audiences may rejoice at the Algerian victory at the conclusion of the film, I can't imagine that any neutral audience member would describe the ending as unambiguously pro-Algerian (See comments on the class I was a part of below). It is true that steps were taken in order to make the methods employed by the French seem shocking. After all, the film has the character of Colonel Mathieu give a defense of the use of torture, and some of the montage effects are intended to paint the French in a less than appealing light. For instance, in one sequence the film cuts abruptly from a late night dinner party in a casual and pleasant tropical setting, to a scene in which members of the same party plant enough explosives in the Turkish section to bring down a house - as if both events were equally casual. This surely emphasizes a certain callousness. But all these effects are effectively counterbalanced with shots that make the FLN seem equally in the wrong. For instance, when the FLN decides to send four women into the French section of the town with bombs to blow up popular nightspots, Pontecorvo spends a significant amount of footage showing the pleasant and carefree atmosphere in the clubs before the bombing, thereby emphasizing the cruelty.
Pontecorvo's casting is also remarkable. Instead of hiring a cast of professional actors, Pontecorvo apparently hired a number of normal people in Algeria for the shooting, as well as the revolutionary leader Yacef Saadi, who basically plays a modified version of himself. Brahim Haggiag makes an amazing Ali La Pointe. A lot of information can be conveyed by an appropriately chosen lead character. His face in the movie is shown scarred by the lifestyle he leads before the revolution, and the hauntingly wild looks that he gives at times - looks that Pontecorvo chooses to dwell on for long periods of time with very close camera shots - emphasizes Ali La Pointe's motivations. Further, Ali's facial expressions contrast sharply with the facial expressions of Yacef Saadi's character, and gives the viewer an instant appreciation for their different outlooks on the revolution, an appreciation that is further emphasized by the different outcomes for each in the course of the film.
Another striking thing about the movie is the black and white photography. As an aside, it is interesting the effects that black and white photography can produce on contemporary audiences. When one is not distracted by color and the many visual effects that can be achieved through color film, characters' emotions and views are somehow expressed more vividly and clearly. This certainly seems to be the case in another one of my favorite movies, Der Himmel über Berlin . The film's use of black and white photography to portray the world view of the angels seems to capitalize on the effect - suggesting perhaps that an angel would somehow see through to the core of one's personality. The effect in The Battle of Algiers is similar, although it has more of the feel of a documentary, since the film enhances the feel of objectivity through its neutrality, and through occasional hand-held camera techniques. But the film does not intend to be a documentary, and Pontecorvo uses the camera work to great artistic effect. For instance, the black and white film also emphasizes the shapes of the buildings, an effect that makes the Turkish section of the town seem even more labyrinthine. Actually, this labyrinthine effect seemed to make the ending of the film that much more powerful; what we see at the end of the film are enormous crowds unconfined by walls and barriers, perhaps suggesting that the success of the Algerian revolution was the result of the coordination of the masses, rather than the focused approach of the FLN.
I thought the use of Bach (The Matthäus-Passion, I believe) in the opening was a little out of place at first, although it seemed a more reasonable choice when I rewatched that scene. The use of heavy drum beats to emphasize the building tension . . . especially in the bombing sequence were quite effective.
I saw this film with a class in which I was a course assistant. I was actually surprised at some students' reactions. Some who saw the movie thought that it gave a pretty good argument for the use of torture to obtain information. I found this a bit frightening, especially given recent activities of the Bush Administration, and found myself arguing against a number of students in the class, although my job was not to influence the content of the course. C'est la vie. Anyway, it is a disturbing movie, and certainly not something to watch if you're looking for an unambiguous pick-me-up.