Criterion Sunday 249: La battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers, 1966)

Over 50 years on and there’s still an enormous amount of clarity and power in this film set against the backdrop of the last few years of the French occupation of Algeria, during the Algerian War, effectively a battle for independence. Pontecorvo’s style emphasises its indebtedness to documentary, by using handheld cameras and a grainy high-contrast black-and-white image that suggests newsreel footage at times. But its thematic achievement is in treating both sides with some semblance of equality, even if it’s clear that the moral force is on the side of the Algerians. While the FLN agitators are not dismissed as mere terrorists, there’s also clearly conflict about their methods and targets, and they are hardly romanticised as freedom fighters. Meanwhile, the film does not in any way exonerate the French in this conflict either, who are ultimately the aggressors, as the colonialist power. The French commander, a tall man in shades, strikes a heroic figure, but despite his successes against the Nazis, his tactics are questioned here, and he remains morally compromised as a player in the drama. The central character arc is for Brahim Haggiag’s Ali, who ascends from petty thief to a figure of central importance within the FLN resistance as a result of prison radicalisation. The film’s narrative takes his story, starting with the end and looping back in time to bring the story full circle, all the while moving the action forward propulsively. As such, the film never slows down for much of its two hours, a very watchable film about a complex struggle that never feels like it’s taking an easy way out.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The first disc includes a documentary called Pontecorvo: The Dictatorship of Truth (1992), a fairly brief TV piece which has Edward Said reflecting on the relatively few films of Pontecorvo, and why he should have largely disappeared from the cinephile conversation by the 1990s. There’s an interview with Pontecorvo himself, who suggests some reasons (a fear of failure seems to be chief among them), and there’s some good context on the making of all three of the features mentioned, particularly The Battle of Algiers.
  • There are interviews with five directors who speak about the film’s importance to their own craft, picking out elements of the style and its production, not that you’d necessarily expect it from people like Steven Soderbergh or Mira Nair.
  • There are also loads of other films and contextualising documents, which I’ll add here as I watch them.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Gillo Pontecorvo; Writers Pontecorvo and Franco Solinas; Cinematographer Marcello Gatti; Starring Brahim Haggiag براهيم حجاج, Jean Martin; Length 120 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Thursday 20 May 1999 (also earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, January 1998, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Sunday 19 May 2019).

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