Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers is at once a scintillating form of entertainment and a dazzling historical document. The 1966 motion picture was shot on location by cinematographer Marcello Gatti and features a somewhat subdued score by Ennio Morricone, with the screenplay by Pontecorvo and Franco Solinas.
The screenplay was inspired by Saadi Yacef’s Souvenirs de la Bataille d’Alger, which has been described variously as either propaganda or an on-the-ground account of the 1956-1957 titular conflict. Pontecorvo covers the historical events in neo-realistic style, giving things a documentary feel.
The Battle of Algiers explores the everyday violence and conflict in the city of French Algeria, with the Algerians fighting for independence from the French. The initial access point is the criminal Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), who witnesses an execution while in prison and joins the National Liberation Front and its leader El-hadi Jafar (Yacef) to fight back against the French oppressors.
The resultant conflict explores, as the French use torture and terrorism and the Algerian rebels return fire with the same tactics. Bombs go off. People are shot in the back. Urban guerilla warfare explodes through the streets, with the French increasing blockades against Muslims and the Algerians looking for a way to throw off the shackles.
Pontecorvo’s picture is not the stuff of standard cinema. His cast is mostly comprised of non-professional actors, with Jean Martin’s portrayal of Lieutenant-Colonel Mathieu serving as one of the only exceptions. Here, the French actor beams in with hands-on irony and can’t quite help but shine a light on the diminishing returns of a colonial past.
The boundless humanity featured in The Battle of Algiers carries with it the immense thrust of revolution. With the location shooting and Gatti’s style of filming from behind “enemy lines” like he’s shielded by French soldiers, it’s hard to shake the notion that something very real is going on. Yet as advertising for the picture affirmed, “Not one foot of newsreel was used.”
So, when the thumping strain of Morricone’s score pounces through the segment in which three women undergo makeovers and carry bombs into French shops, the shivering is close to the bone. And when the French torture and murder and do whatever it takes to hold their imperialistic benefits, the agony is likewise effective.
And yet, The Battle of Algiers exists without sentiment. It doesn’t feel sorry for its subjects and doesn’t necessarily take sides, even though some have argued otherwise. If Pontecorvo is on any “side,” he seems to exhibit compassion and a spiritual lamentation for the victims of the war.
There are twin scenes of people searching through rubble. First, a French bomb goes off and Muslims cry out to the heavens. They set off through the streets and want revenge. Later, FLN bombs explode in discos and cafes and the symbols of Pied-Noir civilization are veiled in a confusing, frightening scene. And the French take their turn searching through the ashes.
It is unyielding escalation, as is the way of conflict. After isolated attacks from the FLN, the French respond by imposing more rules. There are blockades and identification checks and something resembling a Muslim registry. But, as with most lessons idiots refuse to learn from history, nothing changes. Nothing improves.
And so on. The sequence carries through The Battle of Algiers because that is what war is. Violence begs more from those who would inflict it and mayhem knows no preference, no “side.” And the truth is the same: whether baskets or bombers, all is blood.