Battle of the Algiers, The (1966)

Director:  Gillo Pontecorvo
Cast:   Brahim Hadjadj, Jean Martin, Yacef Saadi
Plot:  An account of the bloodiest revolution in modern history.

Genre:  Drama / History 
Awards:  Won Golden Lion (Venice).  Nom. for 3 Oscars - Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Foreign Language Film.
Runtime:  121min
Rating:  NC16 for some disturbing scenes.

There is a scene in The Battle of Algiers that left me in awe.  It is a wide shot of a road with a right turn up a slope.  Hundreds of Algerians pack the street in a strike for independence while a huge French tank rolls across the tarmac towards these people, forcing them to the sidewalks.  The scene’s unbelievable realism stems from director Gillo Pontecorvo’s decision to shoot on location, use local non-professional actors, and achieving a grainy, organic visual style through hand-held cameras and newsreel style editing.

The entire film is shot in this manner.  As a result, The Battle of Algiers is often considered a breakthrough in cinema, the first of its kind.  It is a dramatic film based on something that has happened in real life, and of which it portrays so realistically that it is hard to believe that it is not a two-hour long documentary footage.

Released only four years after the independence of Algeria, Pontecorvo’s film touches upon a nation’s suffering and hope during the French occupation, detailing the violent activities of the National Liberation Front (FLN in abbreviated French), a revolutionary group that was systematically wiped out, but whose sacrificial efforts became etched in the collective psyche of the Algerians, prompting them to rise up to their oppressors.

The film is also noted especially for its outstanding direction, of which Pontecorvo deservedly earned an Oscar nomination for.  Scenes where hundreds of innocent Algerians roam the streets only to be gunned down by the French military evoke a powerful sense of unjust and tragedy.  The use of wide, composed shots and long lens allow the situation to unfold almost like a live event, its visual scope unparalleled at that time.

Of equal impressiveness are scenes of bombs planted by the FLN that explode in a number of crowded places.  The camera captures the real-time explosions as the non-actors try frantically to get away from the blast.  Considering that this was the sixties when computer visual effects were not in existence yet, these dangerous feats could only be filmed as they happened.

Even though Pontecorvo’s film tries to emphasize on the plight of the Algerians (with disturbing scenes of torture), it is still a fair, unbiased take on the French military.  It portrays Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin), the chief officer in charge of restoring order to the colony, as someone who understands and sympathizes with the enemy, attempting to seek cooperation with them rather than trying to annihilate them.

Pontecorvo’s use of Ennio Morricone’s deeply haunting music as accompaniment to scenes of Algerian victims of bombings (and later, French civilian victims in another sequence) reflects the collateral effect of war on those caught in the crossfire.  In many sequences, a running radio commentary delivering propagandist messages is broadcast, heightening the sense of realism already so vividly brought to the screen.

Widely regarded as one of cinema’s most important films, The Battle of Algiers is still not widely seen by the mainstream audience.  That needs to change because this is a masterpiece, a film with universal themes of freedom and independence, and a global reach that would resonate strongly with anyone who believes in those ideals.


*Last viewing - Feb '17
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